Don’t Use Public WiFi Hotspots If You Care About Security

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Lots of internet service providers who also offer cell service (e.g., T-Mobile, Verizon, etc.) are expanding their networks of available WiFi hotspots, and they’re using the increased availability of public WiFi those hotspots provide as a selling point to attract new customers. “Concerned about burning through your data allowance? No worries, we’ve got a TON of public WiFi hotspots you can use to preserve your cell plan’s data allowance!”

Don’t believe the hype, because what those service providers aren’t telling you is that using public WiFi hotspots puts your data at risk from hackers.



It’s A Bad Idea To Use Public WiFi Hotspots. Here’s Why.
Public WiFi hotspots, like those at Starbucks, OfficeMax and so on, are typically unencrypted connections, and that’s just a fancy way for techie types to say “unsecured”.

In other words, anyone else who’s connected to that same WiFi hotspot can, through the use of readily available hacker apps and tools, use the connection to record data transmissions going to or from your device. Given the right tools, hackers can record every keystroke and screen tap of all the users around them.

When you visit a site that routinely deals in sensitive data, like a banking site, the site itself will generally employ its own encryption. But that doesn’t really matter much if all your keystrokes and taps were recorded as you made them: now the hacker can visit the same sites you did, and has your username(s) and password(s). A hacker can sit there all day, nursing a latte and monitoring/recording the online activities of everyone in the building, with no one the wiser.



Fake Public WiFi Hotspots: A Bigger Danger
Some hackers take it a step further by bringing their own portable WiFi hotspot routers to locations where consumers generally expect to find a free, public WiFi hotspot. Then they name their hotspot something very similar to what the consumer would expect the real public WiFi hotspot to be named, so that many or even most hotspot users will log in through the hacker’s own hotspot router instead of the legitimate hotspot.

This is much worse, because it allows the hacker to move data in both directions: he can install malware, viruses and trojans on any devices connected to his fake hotspot, in addition to using that connection to collect keystrokes/taps and sensitive data.



How To Reduce Your Risk When Using Public WiFi Hotspots
If you absolutely MUST use public WiFi hotspots for some reason, here are some things you can do to mitigate the risks.

1. Never keep ANY sensitive data on the device(s) you use to access public WiFi hotspots. Seriously, don’t even maintain a Contacts list on the device(s) you intend to use. Nobody can steal your sensitive data if it’s not there to be stolen in the first place.

2. Never use a public WiFi hotspot to access any site that has sensitive data, nor to use any app that requires a login you want to keep private. That means you shouldn’t do any of the following while connected to a public WiFi hotspot: check your email, shop online, do any online banking, make online payments of any kind, check your credit card balances, et cetera.

3. Do all you can to verify the hotspot login/Terms of Use screen (where you’re asked to agree to the hotspot provider’s Terms of Use before using the hotspot) is legitimate. Remember that hackers are very good at faking this kind of thing, so don’t assume the mere presence of a login/Terms of Use screen means the hotspot is safe. You need to mouse over any links on the page to verify they’re legitimate, read all the text on the page to check for obvious misspellings and grammar errors, and be tech-savvy enough to tell if the web address you’re seeing for the login/Terms of Use screen is the correct one for the real hotspot. You can also check with a store/business employee to verify the network you’re about to sign into is the correct one—they will know the name of their network.


But again, it’s safest to simply never use public WiFi hotspots in the first place.


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