From coffee shops and hotels to airports and retail stores, it seems free Wi-Fi is everywhere these days. Yet the freedom this brings comes with a price.
Public Wi-Fi networks provide an access point for cybercriminals and identity thieves to watch, listen, and even steal from the device you use to access the network.
“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 last year. “[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.
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? Cybersnoops can use Wi-Fi-sniffing software to see all the traffic that's transferred over a given network. If someone is tapped into your network connection, you don't want to be broadcasting sensitive login information.
If you're going to visit Facebook or other sites that require login credentials, check the address bar of your web browser to be sure the address starts with “https,” or has the security padlock sign. This indicates the page has a valid digital certificate and up-to-date SSL/TLS encryption. Tip: If you don't see the “s” in “https,” log out immediately.
While using your home network, you may share files, printers, or allow remote login from other computers. Yet when using a public network, you should turn off sharing features. If you don't, anyone can access your computer.
Lifehacker offers instructions on how to turn off sharing for both Windows and OS X.
A VPN, or virtual private network, creates a network-within-a-network to keep your computer activity on a public Wi-Fi connection private. Even if a hacker intercepts your Wi-Fi activity, the data he or she sees will be strongly encrypted. VPNs are necessary when connected to your business through an unsecured connection, and should be considered for personal computers on public networks as well.
Even if you aren't connected to a network, the Wi-Fi hardware in your computer is usually transmitting data between any networks in range. If you're using your computer for non-network-related tasks, like working in Word or Excel, switch off your Wi-Fi. This will also give you a longer battery life.
Protecting your bank accounts is crucial so you can never be too careful. Start with the simplest 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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