I recently traveled to Europe with some friends and one of the biggest questions on everyone’s minds was how to stay connected while abroad. While mobile companies often charge an arm and a leg for out of the country data usage, European cities tend to have a lot of public Wi-Fi access, even more than we see here in the States. Whether you’re traveling in the U.S. or abroad, you’ll likely have access to public Wi-Fi in airports and hotels. With the easy access to public Wi-Fi wherever we go, we shouldn’t have to worry about getting on the internet anywhere, right? Wrong! Public Wi-Fi is extremely dangerous. Let me explain why.

Why public Wi-Fi can be so risky

When you walk into a coffee shop and sit down to connect to its free public Wi-Fi, you are putting yourself at risk. While connected to this network, any other computers also connected can now reach, and try to talk to, your computer. Anyone on that Wi-Fi is free to attempt to break into your machine using a number of potential vulnerabilities in your computer.

But that’s just the beginning. A hacker sitting down at the coffee shop can also trick your computer or phone into thinking their computer is the Wi-Fi router, making your device send all traffic to the malicious computer before it gets out to the internet. All your unencrypted traffic can now be read and stolen by the hacker. A hacker could also set up a fake website that looks and acts exactly like a real website you want to visit. So if you wanted to go to a site like your email or bank account, you’d think you were seeing the real site, but you’re actually visiting the hacker’s spoofed site. You type in your email password, and Boom!, the hacker has your credentials and can log in as you. A hacker could also set up his own real Wi-Fi access point, set the name to something convincing, or even the same name as an existing Wi-Fi network, and then perform the same attacks mentioned earlier with even greater ease.

So what can we do to protect ourselves? The obvious solution is to not use public Wi-Fi. Even a known legitimate Wi-Fi can be used for nefarious purposes. The best alternative is to use your mobile data or hotspot from your phone if you need to use your laptop. However, if this is not a viable option because of data costs or a limited plan, consider the following for situations when you must use Wi-Fi…

Tips for staying safe on public Wi-Fi

  • Avoid obviously bad Wi-Fi Points. Wi-Fi access points with names like “Totally Free Wi-Fi” are probably not safe. However, as mentioned earlier, even a legitimate Wi-Fi name can be bad.
  • Only use sites that use HTTPS. HTTPS encrypts the traffic to the website while HTTP does not. Although this will protect us most of the time, not all websites are properly configured and some only use HTTPS on specific portions of their sites. So, there are ways for hackers to get some or all of your data from some websites you visit.
  • Secure your computer and phone. Earlier I mentioned that a hacker may try to break into your machine using some vulnerability. One way to reduce your computer’s vulnerabilities is to keep the operating system and anti-virus up-to-date. Always install all your updates. Keep your phone updated as well. You should also disable sharing services on your computer while using public Wi-Fi.
  • Use a VPN whenever possible. Using a good VPN is the best way to ensure all your traffic is encrypted and secure when on public Wi-Fi. You can do a quick Google search to find the top-rated VPN solutions. The best offerings have Android, iPhone, and computer versions, and they also cost money. I do not recommend using a free VPN, and to be extra safe, you should use VPN at all times, even when using your data plan.

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While using public Wi-Fi you should avoid using financial sites or sending personally identifiable information. This is information you definitely don’t want stolen, so it’s better to be safe than sorry. Even with a VPN it would be best to keep these activities to a minimum.

Using the above steps will help you stay as safe as possible while you’re out and about, and while using public Wi-Fi when you must. Good luck out there and happy web surfing!

Three next steps

  • Make sure your phone, computer and other devices are up-to-date with updates and anti-virus software and install a reputable VPN.
  • Learn more about staying secure online with our other Security articles or contact me for more information.
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