6 tips to stay safe from the hidden dangers of public Wi-Fi
Thanks to the proliferation of free, public Wi-Fi, getting online is easier than ever. From coffee shops to airports, bookstores to libraries, open Wi-Fi connections are available nearly everywhere.
Unfortunately, while convenient for consumers, public Wi-Fi also provides ample opportunity for fraudsters. And most people are unaware of the risks to their personal and financial information. According to Norton by Symantec’s 2017 Wi-Fi Risk Report, more than half of consumers (55 percent) don’t think twice about exchanging information to get a strong, free Wi-Fi signal, and 87 percent admit they may have potentially put their information at risk.
The Identity Theft Resource Center offers examples of what can go wrong when using public Wi-Fi. In one example, 50 customers of a Rhode Island coffee house with public Wi-Fi reported unauthorized charges to their credit cards totaling $50,000. In another, an airline passenger who purchased in-flight Wi-Fi experienced thousands of dollars of unauthorized credit card charges.
Let’s take a look at some of the hidden dangers of using free, public Wi-Fi, and steps you can take to mitigate the threats.
Hackers love free Wi-Fi
Cybersecurity experts Kapersky Labs note that free Wi-Fi is especially desirable to hackers because it requires no authentication to establish a connection to the network. Fraudsters can easily access any unsecured devices that are connected to the same network by positioning themselves (virtually) between the device user and the connection point.
The user inputs their information to access the Wi-Fi, but instead of being securely transmitted to the provider’s server, it’s intercepted by the hacker. Anything a user sends over the internet is vulnerable—emails, credit card information, even secure credentials to a business network.
Unsecured Wi-Fi networks are also susceptible to scams, as recently reported by the Better Business Bureau. In this scenario, hackers set up a fake Wi-Fi hotspot in a public place and stole users’ credit card information by requesting a small fee to use the connection.
Another threat is malware, which hackers can easily distribute over an unsecured Wi-Fi connection to plant infected software on users’ devices. Some hackers take it even further with ransomware that locks the device and demands a payout to release.
Tips to protect yourself
In addition to using antivirus software on your laptop and following best practices for passwords, here are six tips to help stay safe when using public Wi-Fi.
- Verify the Wi-Fi connection address before you log on. Fraudsters often set up fake hotspots next to legitimate ones.
- Use a virtual private network (VPN) that encrypts data being sent and received from your device.
- Only go to HTTPS or secure pages (but note that although the website might be safe, your personal information is still vulnerable).
- Keep Wi-Fi turned off when you don’t need it so your mobile device does not automatically connect to nearby available networks.
- Turn off sharing from your system preferences or Control Panel.
- Don’t make purchases, or access your online bank or credit card accounts using public Wi-Fi.
Free public Wi-Fi may come at a steep price if you don’t take the necessary precautions to protect your personal and financial information. For additional tips about securely using public Wi-Fi, visit the Federal Trade Commission or contact your trusted payments provider.