How Secure Is WhatsApp? What You Should Know About the Popular Messaging App

It’s free and simple to use, and there are no annoying pop-up ads.  WhatsApp is a great way to text and call friends and family all over the world — some 1.5 billion users agree.  All you need is an internet connection.  And for the growing numbers of super sophisticated Android smartphone users, it’s the perfect answer to iMessage. What’s not to love?

Unfortunately, privacy issues continue to plague the popular messaging app.  First there was the controversy in early 2020 when it was discovered that anyone who cared to look could discover the names of WhatsApp group members.  Then, as the company scrambled to fix that issue, the same problem arose with phone numbers. It seemed like a proverbial game of Whack-a-Mole. 

But before you hitch your wagon to WhatsApp’s shiny star, ask yourself — just how secure is WhatsApp?  Here, we break down what you need to know.

How Secure Is WhatsApp?

The buzz in early 2020 was that WhatsApp group chats could be found using a Google search.  This means that your group chat, as well as the phone numbers of every group member, was available to anyone who cared to look.  From there, it is a simple matter to find the name through Contacts.

Although Google stopped making WhatsApp groups searchable, Google isn’t the only search engine in town.  Unless and until search engines stop listing WhatsApp groups, consider that your group chat may be public: It’s estimated that over 60,000 groups are still accessible online.

How to Be More Secure

In order to establish a group, the group administrator creates a link.  If that link is shared on a public website, the group can be discovered via a search engine.  What if you already shared the link?  You can invalidate the old link by generating a new one in Group Settings.  This means that anyone who has the old link will not be able to join the group.

Avoid this privacy issue altogether by not using the link feature.  Instead, add people to the group by putting their phone numbers in your Contacts.

Be Wary of WhatsApp Scams

In 2009, Apple first coined (and trademarked) the phrase “There’s an app for that.”  Nowadays they might add: There’s a scam for that app.  WhatsApp is not immune.  So just how safe is WhatsApp when it comes to internet crime?

There are lots of WhatsApp scams.  They typically involve people you think you know sending you links or videos.  Many of these so-called scams are hoaxes.  Watching a video on WhatsApp will not cause malware to install, but be careful of clicking on links that send you outside the app.

WhatsApp is beta testing a fact-checking tool to inform its users about scams and misinformation they may encounter.  If you’re in doubt, check it out.

Another popular scam is the verification-code scam.  The scammer, posing as a friend, claims to have difficulty receiving a verification code.  They tell you that the code is being sent to you instead.  Once you give them the code, they now have access to your WhatsApp account.  They may then ask you for money or steal your personal information.

How to Avoid This Scam

This is a ridiculously easy scam to fall for.  Fortunately, it’s just as easy to avoid.  Do not give out a PIN to anyone.  Also, make sure you have two-step verification set up on your WhatsApp account.

  1. Go to Settings on WhatsApp.
  2. Tap Account.
  3. Select Two-Step Verification.
  4. Create a six-digit pin.

Go ahead and set up a backup email address while you’re at it.  If you’ve already been hacked, you’ll need to reinstall the application with a new verification code.

How to Block Someone on WhatsApp

You can easily block a contact on WhatsApp.  This will stop messages, calls and status updates for you, as well as for the person you’ve blocked.  From within the app, follow these steps:

  1. Tap Settings (on Android, More Options, which is three vertical dots).
  2. Tap Accounts.
  3. Tap Privacy.
  4. Scroll down and select Blocked (on Android, Block Contacts).
  5. Tap Add.
  6. Select the contact you want to add.

What happens if you are contacted by an unknown person?  You can block this number just as easily.  On an iPhone or Android, simply do the following:

  1. Open the chat.
  2. Tap Block.
  3. Tap Block once more.

You can also use the Report and Block feature to the report the number to WhatsApp as spam (in addition to preventing the spammer from messaging you).

General Security Measures on WhatsApp

As with any social media, be careful what you share.  Do not provide personal information, such as your Social Security number, birth date, account numbers, banking info or PINs, on WhatsApp.  And certainly do not send money for the use of this free service.

WhatsApp does not store your messages — it merely delivers them.  Therefore, the company is limited in its ability to take action on your behalf.  If you feel threatened by content you receive on the platform, capture a screenshot and share it with your local law-enforcement agency.

If you want to investigate the sender on your own, start with a people search engine, such as Spokeo.  Using limited information, such as a name or phone number, Spokeo can help you determine whether the person on the other end of your chat is someone you actually want to deal with.