Wi-Fi Hot Spots

A Wi-Fi hotspot allows you to access the Internet through a shared wireless network.  This means that if you’re cruising around town with your laptop, iPad, or PDA, you can easily get online and check your e-mail, the latest sport scores, or tomorrow’s weather.  You can find Wi-Fi hotspots in many locations, including cafes, hotels, bookstores, restaurants, campgrounds, libraries, airports, college campuses, and even some towns and cities.  Some venues will offer free Wi-Fi access as a way to draw in customers.

However, using an unsecured wireless network can leave your computer and the information you are transmitting vulnerable to hackers and identity thieves.  Anyone who is using the network, sometimes even when it’s password protected, may be able to see the information that you’re sending and receiving.  Thieves may also access the files on your computer or even install malware.

A commonly reported scam involves malicious “free” hotspots in places like airports where typically there’s a charge to access the Internet.  The bargain hunter in you rejoices – you’ve just scored free Internet while all the schmucks around you are paying for the same thing.  But instead of connecting to the Internet through a hotspot, you’re actually connected to a nearby hacker’s computer in what is called a peer-to-peer ad hoc network, aka an “evil twin.”  You happily surf the net while the hacker records your keystrokes, steals your logins and passwords, accesses your files, or installs malicious software on your computer.  Quite the bargain, huh?

Protecting Yourself

There are a number of measures you can take to safeguard your information when using a Wi-Fi hotspot.  According to the FTC, encryption is critical when it comes to using public hotspots.  Encryption means that the information that is being sent back and forth is in code.  Some networks themselves, such as ones used by businesses for their employees, are encrypted so that everything that is transmitted is secure.  A hotspot with WPA-2 (not WEP) encryption is the safest choice but, unfortunately, public networks are rarely encrypted.

The next best thing is to make sure that any websites you log into when using a public network is encrypted.  You can tell when a website is encrypted when the URL starts with “https” instead of just “http,” and, on most browsers, you will also see a padlock icon in the browser window.  For your session to be secure, make sure that you see the “https” or lock icon the entire time you’re logged into that site and not just on the log-in page.  Other ways to protect yourself include:

  1. Disable automatic connections – set-up your computer so that it asks before making connections so that you don’t accidently connect with a hacker.
  1. Disable sharing – your computer may be set to automatically connect for file or printer sharing, which is fine at home or at work, but make sure to disable this feature in public.
  1. Log-out when you’re finished – don’t stay permanently logged into websites.  For the risk averse, the best thing to do is to avoid logging into vulnerable sites (e.g., your bank, credit, or investment portfolio) on public networks altogether.
  1. Keep your computer security software up-to-date and watch out for warnings.  It’s probably not a good idea to download anything on a public network unless you’re certain it’s not malware, so do your updates on a secure server.
  1. If you’re a regular user of public networks use a VPN (virtual private network) that encrypts all transmissions.  You will need to purchase this service from a VPN provider if your employer or school does not offer it.

So the next time you’re sipping your latté at the local coffee shop in front of your laptop, follow the suggestions outlined above to be a savvy surfer.

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“Personal Digital Assistant” – can be used as a mobile phone, web browser, or portable media player

Wi-Fi Protected Access 2. WPA-2 secures and encrypts your data while you surf the web wirelessly. Networks with this kind of security require password authentication from users.

Wired Equivalent Privacy. WEP is a security protocol for wireless networks. Unfortunately, it turns out to have some weaknesses that may leave your data vulnerable to attacks. WPA-2 is considered to be the more secure option.

Identifies and protects against threats or vulnerabilities that may compromise your computer or your personal information; includes anti-virus and anti-spyware software and firewalls

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