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The Real Cost of Buying Cheap Chinese Smartphones


It’s apparent that smartphones are getting cheaper by the day, at least in the lower market segment, a trend that’s lead by Chinese phone makers. The inexpensive nature of these phones, at first glance, is a clear win for the consumer, but on closer inspection that is not always true.

A revelation from BuzzFeed News reveals the real cost behind buying cheap Chinese smartphones. The report uncovers how the cheaply priced smartphones turn out to be expensive in the long run. Case in the study; TECNO W2.

According to the report, the phone presented users with intrusive pop-up ads that would interrupt calls and messages. Additionally, a customer would wake up to find their prepaid data has vanished mysteriously. And that’s not all. You could also wake up to a series of messages about paid apps you know nothing about. Reason? The phone came with malware out-of-the-box.

Secure-D, a mobile security service, said the phone was pre-installed with xHelper and Triada. Both malwares were working hard to download apps secretly and subscribe a user to premium services.

This is not an isolated case. Secure-D, which is reportedly used by mobile carriers to protect customers against fraudulent transactions, blocked 844,000 transactions linked to pre-installed malware on Transsion phones between March and December 2019. Transsion is the fourth-biggest handset maker in the world which owns subsidiaries like TECNO, iTel and Infinix.

TECNO’s W2 smartphones in several countries were pre-installed with the two malwares. Models shipped to Ethiopia, Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, South Africa, Indonesia, and Myanmar were the ones infected.

Transsion acknowledges the presence of malware, but the company distances itself by blaming it on a vendor in the supply chain.

The company’s spokesperson also says Transsion did not profit off the malware. Besides, Transsion says they created a fix for Triada and xHelper in March 2018 and late 2019 respectively. But the smartphone user has to download the provided update by themselves.

Thankfully, Secure-D reports a reduction in fraudulent transactions, but the issue has been identified until April this year.  The mobile security firm believes the malware is just in “a dormant stage” and have “no reason to believe it’s gone away”. Transsion declined to specify the number of TECNO W2 phones infected.

The question, however, remains evident on the cost of buying cheap smartphones, especially out of China as this is not an isolated case. Alcatel phones have also exhibited similar behaviour in the past. Malwarebytes also uncovered pre-installed malware on Chinese phones in the US aimed at low-income citizens.

Meanwhile, the US continues to grow concerns of Chinese technology on national security. The government believes China may use its tech companies, like Huawei, to spy on citizens.

Washington has cracked down on Huawei, and ZTE, as a result. Furthermore, it’s currently focusing on yanking out TikTok and WeChat over an automatic collection of “vast swaths of information”. According to the US government, data collected could be used to build profiles for tracking down government employees and contractors for blackmail, and even corporate espionage.

The Indian government has also raised concerns on Chinese apps. India’s IT ministry banned a total of 59 Chinese apps in June over security concerns.

Also, a revelation in April this year involving Xiaomi, another Chinese company, accused the company of mining browsing data from its phones and sending it to a rented server in China.

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Alvin Wanjala

Alvin is a freelance tech journalist. Covers gadgets, cybersecurity, and social media. Talk to me via email alvinwanjala[at]pm[dot]me

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