Con Watch: The Dangers of Public Wi-Fi

When you connect to the free Wi-Fi at your local coffee shop, you may unwittingly be tapping into an identity thief’s network instead.

Sign in an airport advertising free public wi-fi network.

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Steve Weisman is a lawyer, college professor, author, and one of the country’s leading experts in cybersecurity, identity theft, and scams. See Steve’s other Con Watch articles.

Whether you’re at an airport, a hotel, a shopping mall, a coffee shop, or almost anywhere else, you will usually find free public Wi-Fi service that will allow to connect to the Internet without having to use cellular data. However, with this convenience comes great risk. When you connect to the free Wi-Fi at your local coffee shop, you may unwittingly be tapping into an identity thief’s network instead. Technologically, it’s easy for a criminal to set up a phony Wi-Fi network that can steal data from your device and use that information to make you a victim of identity theft. And even if you are not using the phony Wi-Fi network of an identity thief, you may be using unsecure Wi-Fi that is susceptible to being hacked.

So what can you do to make using public Wi-Fi safe?

Avoid using public Wi-Fi for banking or other financial transactions or, for that matter, anything that requires you to provide login credentials. Sensitive data should not be sent over public Wi-Fi, where it potentially can fall into the hands of an identity thief. Limit your use of public Wi-Fi to non-sensitive communications.

It is always a good idea to make sure that your cell phone, tablet, or laptop has a good firewall and is protected by anti-virus and anti-malware security software that has the latest security updates. Some people wouldn’t think of failing to install strong security software on their desktop computer, but neglect to do so with their laptops or phones, leaving them vulnerable. In addition, merely installing security software is not sufficient to protect you. It is critical that you keep up with the latest security updates. The massive data breach at Equifax in 2017 was caused by Equifax’s failure to install the latest security updates for one of its software programs where a security patch had been issued months earlier.

If you are going to use public Wi-Fi, the first thing you should do is check the hotspot name. Identity thieves often set up their phony Wi-Fi with names that appear quite similar to the legitimate one. For example, the public Wi-Fi offered at your coffee shop may be named GoodCoffee while the phony one may be something that with a cursory look appears legitimate, such as Go0dCoffee. Always make sure when using public Wi-Fi that you are on the legitimate Wi-Fi site before proceeding to use it. Many venues display their exact name and password. If you don’t see it, verify the Wi-Fi name with an employee.

Make sure you disable automatic connection to networks in your network settings. Connecting automatically can link you to an identity thief’s phony Wi-Fi network before you realize it.

Finally, the best thing you can do to protect your privacy and security when using public Wi-Fi is to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN). A VPN hides information about your IP address, allowing you to go online anonymously. It also encrypts your communications and send your data through a secure connection to the VPN service provider’s servers, where it is rerouted to whatever site you are trying to reach. Thus a VPN allows you to use inherently insecure public Wi-Fi in a secure manner.

Another benefit of a VPN is that it keeps your Internet searches private. Your Internet Service Provider (ISP) is allowed by law to sell your browsing history to third parties. Most often these third parties merely use this information for purposes of targeted advertising. However, if this information falls into the wrong hands, it can also be used to create spear phishing emails specifically tailored to your interests that lure you into clicking on links infected with malware.

There are both free and pay versions of VPNs. Free VPNs generally collect information about you and send you ads related to your interests. Some cybercriminals have even been known to set up free VPNs to lure people into providing them with information, so do your homework and make sure it is legitimate. Reviews from a recognized third party website will often give you some good suggestions.

Some pay VPNs will not only protect the security of your communications, but will also block cookies from tracking you. Another important class of VPNs are No-Log VPNs which do not collect or use information about the websites you visit or the data you send. These are a good choice.

Taking some basic precautions when using public Wi-Fi can keep you safe and secure.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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Comments

  1. Helpful tips on VPN here, of course. Still though, just another worry on the long merry-go-round list of never ending high tech horrors and nightmares, best avoided altogether whenever possible, hmm Steve?

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