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Tech Bytes: Avoid public charging stations at all costs

Public charging stations are a life-saver in some situations. 

These free USB connections in public places like airports, coffee shops, hotel rooms, libraries, restaurants and seatbacks on airplanes are easy to use. Just plug your USB cable into the port and you’re good to go. Some charging kiosks even have Apple and Android cables built into them. 

“The thought of that battery dying builds anxiety instantly,” says John Joyce, co-owner of CRS Technology Consultants. “The idea behind a public charging station is giving you ready access to add a few percentage points back, just to get you home.” 

After all, cell phones are how we hail an Uber, purchase groceries and communicate with friends, family and customers. 

Unfortunately… 

“That convenience piece is there, but as with anything else, what is the cost of that convenience?” John questions. “Normally some layer of our security.” 

John was invited into ABC7’s studio for a Tech Bytes segment covering the dangers of public charging stations, using the opportunity to make a case against plugging into public charging stations. 

“These USB ports are not just power ports; they are data ports,” he says. “There is a handshake going on between your device and what you’re plugging it into.” 

And that’s especially concerning to business owners whose employees often connect remotely via cell phones, tablets and laptops. Confidential documents, sales data and customer information are at risk. Data security is of paramount importance for businesses large and small. 

The Dangers of Public Charging Stations 

Most USB ports look the same. They’re just rectangular holes in a wall, table or support post. However, charging station users never know what is behind the wall plate. Tech-savvy criminals can tamper with technology. 

Cybercriminals can – and have – designed skimmer-type devices that can be installed behind the wall plate. Much like a credit card skimmer at the gas station, a charging station skimmer can scrape everything on your cell phone or tablet, including usernames, passwords, photos, videos and emails. All of it could potentially be exposed. A compromised port could be programmed to download malware that corrupts files or even locks your phone until you pay a ransom. 

“When it’s a data port, like a USB port, now there can be an exchange of information going both ways,” John says. 

The term “juice jacking” has been used for years to describe the stealthy practice. According to the FCC, though, there have been no confirmed cases of “juice jacking.” However, in most instances of hacking, users never even know their data has been compromised. It can be weeks, months or even years before hackers do anything with your data. 

The first known instance of someone plugging into a rigged charging station was in 2011 at DEF CON, a cybersecurity conference. It was just an experiment, but 360 people unknowingly plugged their devices into a faulty charging station.  

Preventing ‘juice jacking’ 

Here are three solutions for those who absolutely cannot let their device run out of power: 

Carry a charger block: New phones don’t always include charger blocks, but that’s OK. “You’ve probably got 20 of them laying around the house,” John says. “Put one in your bag and take it with you. Just by having that step in between, now it’s just electricity flowing through a cable. It’s a lot safer.” 

Buy a portable charger: A 10,000mAh charger can fully charge a cell phone 2-3 times. 

Plug a charging cable into your laptop: It’s secure and has minimal impact on a computer’s battery life. 

When all else fails, let your cell phone die. Generations before us did OK without cell phones. That phone call, email or text can probably wait until later. 

If you simply must plug in 

For businesses, time is money. Downtime due to nonfunctioning technology has a cost, especially for those who travel for work. Cell phones, tablets and laptops are essential pieces of equipment. 

VPN: Install a VPN on your device to encrypt data. Even that isn’t a failsafe method. “If you’re plugging into a potentially compromised USB port, it could bypass a lot of that encryption,” John says. “As soon as you unlock your phone, you are decrypting the information on it.” 

Power down: If you absolutely must charge your phone via a public charging station, power down your device before you plug in. “It’s going to charge a little bit faster because it’s not consuming as much power, but it also means that ‘handshake’ of information shouldn’t be as easy to take place if the phone is turned off,” John says. 

Pay attention: “If you plug in your device and simply see it go to charging, chances are, you’re OK,” John says. “If you see something pop up that we’ve all seen on our phone when we plug in an actual USB device – ‘Do you trust this device, yes or no?’ – always say no. Even if you say no, that’s a very solid tell that something is going on with that port.” 

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