A basic calculator app or harmless looking game are never much of a worry on our teen’s smartphone. However, a growing number of smartphone apps are taking on some sinister secret identities. What looks like a calculator may actually be a “vault app“–a secret photo album perfect for stockpiling private photos and video clips. While these secret photos may not be wrong in and of themselves, many “vault apps” become easy stashes for pornography, sexting, and other dangerous social media behaviors for some teenagers. As parents, it can be important for us to learn how to spot these hidden vault apps.
Popular Hidden Dangers
Disguised as a basic calculator, this popular app easily stores any type of photo or video. This app even functions as a real calculator to keep it realistic, however, input the specific security code and the apps outer disguise melts away and an entire vault setting appears. This app allows users to upload their entire vault to a separate cloud-storage program, what they delete on the app may not be necessarily gone. It can still be stored elsewhere or synced to a separate phone or computer.
As an extra security feature, this app is protected with a “photo-locker” which secretly takes a mug shot of anyone who attempts to break into the app with the wrong security pin. The vault’s owner will receive a security update and warning that someone attempted to hack their vault. Although this app is rated 17+ and mature on Google’s Play Store, the exceptional privacy features of this app make it tempting for teens.
Private SMS & Call
Although most vault apps specialize on just hiding photos or videos, many others prioritize hiding text messages and phone call records. With this type of app, teens can easily hide who they’ve been texting and calling. Even if they’ve been warned to stop contacting strangers or certain individuals, this private text and call app allows them to easily stay in contact with anyone that they wish.
Using the smartphone’s original text and alerts, this app masquerades as legitimate calls and texts. These secret communications only show up within the app, though. The app is opened by dialing an original security pin–much like we do to open our voicemail. Without this pin, the app is virtually invisible to everyone. Once opened, simply giving the phone a quick, subtle shake is enough to close down and hide the entire app.
Because the calculator disguise is so effective, many vault apps choose it as their cover. “Calc” is one of the best and most legitimate-looking value apps. It’s very name makes it appear to be a simple calculator or math class tool for teens. Unlike more basic vault apps, this one hides more than just the basic photos or videos. Documents, personal notes, photos, videos, music downloads, and many other types of files are all easy to store. Like other hidden vaults, this app can only be opened with a user-specific password.
Although our teens may have a safe group of friends, there may still be that “one person” or even a stranger that as we parents we feel isn’t safe or healthy for them to be around. Although we may check their smartphones, instant messaging, and text guard against their contact with these individuals, “Secret Love” still gives them a dangerous opportunity. Whether trying to contact an ex or simply the attractive stranger they met online or out and about, this app allows them to carry on private communications and interactions without any boundaries. “Secret Love” is marketed as a “love affair” app for those desperate to hide secret relationships. Although there is no record of these incognito calls and texts on the phone itself, the app keeps a private record of these secret interactions. The smartphone itself can be left out in plain sight without fear of anyone stumbling onto this app by accident. It appears to be nothing more than a harmless “notepad” app for quick notes or personal memos.
Spotting a Fake or Vault App
These 4 vault apps represent some of the highest-quality vault apps available to teens today. Each one is free and easy to download. However, they are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to secret apps, subtle disguises and easy availability gives young people a huge array of options when it comes to hiding unpleasant online behavior if they want to. As a parent it can sometimes feel overwhelming when trying to keep an eye out for these disguised apps. With some basic search techniques we can stay on guard for dangerous vault apps before they do any damage.
Look for duplicate apps
If you notice that your teen has two calculators on their mobile device, stop and take a closer look. Duplicate apps such as calculators usually mean that one of them is a fraud. The same is true for messaging apps. Teens with two or more separate instant messaging apps may be trying to hide certain conversations.
Do your research
Stay ahead by doing regular checks on Google Play or Apple Play store. Search “vault apps” or “app hiders” to gain a good idea of what’s trending and popular to download. These searches allow you to see what some of these fake apps look like. You may be able to spot a fake app much faster with a little research and familiarity.
Family share plans and mobile parental controls
Mobile parental controls allow parents to keep better track of what’s being added to any smartphone or tablet within their family. A parental control software that cannot be easily defeated will allow you to set parameters that require your children and teenagers to obtain “parental” approval before they are allowed to downloading any new apps. Investing in an outside mobile parental control will also give you control over what apps you choose for them to be using and when they can access them!
Although these vault apps are a serious concern, if you do find them on your teens mobile device they are not the root of the problem. It does probably mean that it is time for a talk. Why did your teen feel the need to hide information? What parts of their live do they feel they need to keep secret? Wrong friends, dangerous sexual relationships, and “stranger danger” are all valid cases for why these apps are signs of a deeper problem for some teens. We always recommend that parents address these vault apps immediately and work on developing a real and ongoing conversation with your teen concerning their safety.
As always, we encourage you to remind your teen that sexting, pornography, and “Dark Web” material are all legal dangers that are easy to trace back to these so-called “private” apps. Help your teen recognize the risk of carrying on a deceptive, double life and get back on a safe and honest path!
Also published on Medium.