Public Wi-Fi is inherently flawed. Wi-Fi was born convenient, not secure. It is likely that you have heard about how dangerous it is to use an unsecured public Wi-Fi connection, and one reason is because hackers can easily access your device. It is easier than you might think for a person to hack into your device when it is connected to a public Wi-Fi connection. In some cases they may be able to read your emails and messages, access your passwords, or even get personal information like your bank account number.
It’s possible that a Wi-Fi router, or any public router you connect to, has been hacked. Someone sitting near you in a coffee shop or park could easily download a free wireless network analyzer and see what you are doing online…unless your device is protected.
Six Ways to Keep Hackers Off Your Devices on Public Wi-Fi
It is best to avoid connecting to public Wi-Fi, as well as hotel, shopping mall, coffee shop, car dealership or restaurant Wi-Fi networks. Remember that these network admins are not in the business of being network admins. They may be unaware of security breaches or bad actors harvesting personal information on their premises.
If you must use public Wi-Fi, always follow these rules:
- Don’t automatically connect to public Wi-Fi networks. When initially connecting to a wireless network, we are often faced with a checkbox or option to “automatically connect” to the network in the future. Uncheck this and always manually connect. For example, if your home network is “Netgear” and you are somewhere and your device sees another network named “Netgear,” your device may connect to its namesake—which may not necessarily be as safe, potentially leaving your device vulnerable to anyone monitoring that new network.
- Confirm the network you are connecting to. This is often easier said than done. There are rogue networks called “evil twins” that criminals set up; they are designed to lure you into connecting by spoofing the name of a legitimate network. For example, you may use what you see as “Starbucks Wi-Fi” to connect while you’re sipping your latte, but you may also see a listing for “FREE Starbucks Wi-Fi.” Or “ATT WIFI” might be real, but a hacker might have “Free ATT WIFI” as a fake network. Which one—if either—is the real one? When in doubt, ask an employee this question: “What’s the name of your Wi-Fi?” If you see more than one option that looks very similar, don’t connect, and inform the employee that you think someone’s trying to spoof their network.
- Make sure any site you log in to has an encrypted connection. Some Wi-Fi networks direct you to a home page to log in.The URL should start with HTTPS, not HTTP. Never provide any personal information, not even your first name, on an insecure site.
- Avoid Wi-Fi that uses default router names. When setting up a home or business network, you should know to change the name of the router to make it harder for hackers to access it. This is one of the fundamental rules of wireless cyber security. You should demand a similar level of cyber threat awareness from any Wi-Fi network you use. Admins who leave a default router name often leave the default password as well, giving bad actors free access to everyone on the network.
- Use a VPN when you connect to a public Wi-Fi connection. A VPN creates a secure connection over an unsecured network. Anyone scanning the network will be able to see that you are using it, but they will not be able to see what you’re doing or access any of the data you send. If you frequently travel or connect to public Wi-Fi networks, you should strongly consider subscribing to a VPN that provides strong encryption.
- Be aware of your surroundings. Public Wi-Fi networks often, but not always, have a short transmission range, which means an individual trying to steal your information could be just a few feet away. Be mindful of individuals who appear suspicious or people who are trying to conceal their activity while using public Wi-Fi. If a situation doesn’t feel right, don’t log in.
Written by Robert Siciliano, CEO of Credit Parent, Head of Training & Security Awareness Expert at Protect Now, #1 Best Selling Amazon author, Media Personality & Architect of CSI Protection Certification.