Preinstalled malware on low-cost Chinese phones has been found to steal data and money from people across the world, particularly low-income households.

Upstream, an  anti-fraud firm, discovered  the malicious code on 53,000 Tecno handsets, sold in Ethiopia, Ghana and South Africa and other African countries.

According to Buzzfeed, manufacturer Transsion said it was installed in the supply chain without its knowledge.

Upstream said it was taking advantage of the “most vulnerable”.

“The fact that the malware arrives pre-installed on handsets that are bought in their millions by typically low-income households tells you everything you need to know about what the industry is currently up against,” said Geoffrey Cleaves, head of Upstream’s Secure-D platform.

The Triada malware, Buzzfeed reports, found by the firm on the Android smartphones installs malicious code known as xHelper which then finds subscription services and submits fraudulent requests on behalf of users, doing so invisibly and without the user’s knowledge.

If the request is successful, it consumes pre-paid airtime, the only way to pay for digital services in many developing countries. Upstream found what it described as “suspicious activity” on more than 200,000 Tecno smartphones.

According to research firm IDC, Transsion Holdings is one of China’s leading phone manufacturers and in Africa, it is the top-selling mobile manufacturer.

Reacting, Tecno Mobile said that the issue was an old but solved mobile security issue.

“For current W2 consumers that are potentially facing Triada issues now, they are highly recommended to download the over-the-air fix through their phone for installation or contact Tecno’s after-sales service support for assistance in any questions,” the firm said in a statement.

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