We use wireless internet daily—at coffee shops, libraries, hotels—but how secure is that Wi-Fi hot spot? Is your information safe? And what can you do protect yourself?
What are the Risks?
Wireless internet is an open network of radio waves, and as you surf the web, your information is sent across those waves. On a secure wireless network, a password is generally required to join the network. Most public Wi-Fi spots, however, aren’t secure, and anyone can join, including hackers. Once hackers are on your same unsecure network, they can intercept your information as it floats across the waves, posing all kinds of security risks:
Hackers can easily intercept your credit card or bank account information that you enter in a Wi-Fi connection. They can also easily steal passwords and sensitive login information.
Stealing your information via Wi-Fi is a lot easier than you’d think. Hackers can use a simple Firefox Add-on called Firesheep that makes stealing your Facebook, Twitter, and Gmail passwords as easy as installing a plugin. This is just one of many free tools out there available to hackers.
Criminals can abuse use your wireless connection to perform illegal activity, like virus attacks, hacking, and distributing illegal material. You may be held liable for any illegal activity associated with your IP address and Wi-Fi connection.
Access to Corporate Accounts
Once a hacker gains access to your computer via Wi-Fi, they can easily snoop out any remote access you might have with your work computer and use that to steal valuable company information. They can look into your work email accounts, sensitive documents, and even gain access to your corporate accounts, causing trouble not only for you, but for you company as well.
How can you Stay Safe?
Protect yourself from Wi-Fi hackers by taking the following steps:
Use a Safe Network
Never connect to Wi-Fi connections you don’t trust. If you’re at a hotel or a coffee shop, ask them what their wireless network is named and only use that network. Even if the network looks safe, don’t trust it unless you’ve verified the name of the network.
Use a Firewall
Protect yourself from virus attacks by installing a virus or firewall program on your computer. A firewall is a program you can install to protect your network and computer from malicious activity. Firewalls filter through information coming through your network and alert you of suspicious activity and unauthorized connection attempts.
Avoid Entering Sensitive Information
It’s best to avoid the problem completely and avoid entering any sensitive information, like credit card numbers, on a public Wi-Fi connection. A firewall may prevent hackers from connecting to your computer, but it doesn’t keep them from stealing sensitive information you pass along the unsecured wireless networks.
If you absolutely need to use your credit card on a public connection, make sure the site’s URL has “https” at the front of the URL, which means it’s an encrypted connection and will scramble your data as it travels across the internet.
Use a VPN
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a method of creating a secured connection on a non-secure network. A VPN requires a username and password and scrambles all of your information as it’s passed across the internet. This is the most secure option for using public Wi-Fi connections.
Knowing the potential security risks, you may want to think twice before logging on to the free network at your local coffee shop. Take the proper precautions and trust your instincts, and you can continue to enjoy the convenience of public Wi-Fi.