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Using Public Wi-Fi? These Tips Can Keep You Safe

From coffee shops and hotels to airports and retail stores, it seems free Wi-Fi is everywhere these days. Yet the freedom and convenience this brings comes with a price.

Unfortunately, the openness of public Wi-Fi networks also creates an access point for cybercriminals and identity thieves to watch, listen, and even steal from the device you use to access the Internet.

“The major hazard with public Wi-Fi is the fact that all the information you're transferring between your computer and the computer that you're accessing is available to everybody on the network,” said David Maimon, assistant professor in the University of Maryland's Criminology and Criminal Justice Department, in an interview with DigitalTrends.com. “[Attackers] can get passwords, usernames, you name it.”

This isn’t to say you should stop using free Wi-Fi completely. Rather, there are a few things you can do — and should do — whenever you log onto a public Wi-Fi network.

Avoid “logging into” websites

When using a public Wi-Fi network, the anti-virus specialists at Norton suggest avoiding sites that require you to log in with a username and password, including your banking website, social networking sites, and even your email account.

Why? Because cyber snoops use Wi-Fi-sniffing software to see all traffic that's crossing over a given network. If someone shady is tapped into the network you’re using, you don't want to be broadcasting sensitive login information that they can steal.

Look for https

If you're going to visit Facebook or other sites that require login credentials, then check the address bar of your web browser to be sure the address starts with “https” (or look for the security padlock sign). This indicates that the page has a valid digital certificate and up-to-date SSL/TLS encryption.

Tip: If you don't see the “s” in “https,” then log out immediately.

Turn off sharing

While using your secure home network, you may share files, printers, or allow remote login from other computers. However, when you’re using a public network, you should always turn off your sharing features. If you don't, anyone can access your computer.

Tip: Lifehacker offers instructions on how to turn off sharing for both Windows and OS X.

Use a VPN

A VPN, or virtual private network, creates a network-within-a-network that keeps your public Wi-Fi connection private. Even if hackers intercept your Wi-Fi activity, the data they see will be protected through encryption. VPNs are necessary when accessing your business’s network through an unsecured connection, and, therefore, are ideal solutions to protect personal computers on public networks.

Turn off Wi-Fi that’s not in use

Even if you aren't connected to a network, the Wi-Fi hardware in your computer could transmit data to any networks in range. If you're using your computer for non-network-related tasks, like working in Word or Excel, then switch off your Wi-Fi.

Tip: This practice will also lengthen your battery life.

More information

You can never be too careful when protecting your bank accounts online. Start with the easiest and most affordable tools available. To learn more, visit our security, privacy, and fraud-prevention page for more tips on how to stay safe online.

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