Public Wi-Fi is fast, convenient and oftentimes free.
However, the cost of convenience can have life-changing results – stolen passwords, hacked social media channels and drained savings accounts. These days, free public Wi-Fi is an expectation, but immediately hopping onto a connection isn’t always a good idea.
“Sometimes we need to slow down before we can speed up,” said John Joyce, co-owner of CRS Technology Consultants.
John recently had an opportunity to discuss the dangers of public Wi-Fi on ABC7. In the studio, he explained how public Wi-Fi provided by libraries, coffee shops, hotels, airports and shopping centers is not the problem.
“Wi-Fi, like almost any other technology, is not inherently dangerous by itself,” John said. “It’s how people choose to use it.”
And cybercriminals are choosing to use Wi-Fi as a means to steal data, and ultimately, your financial livelihood.
How cybercriminals steal data
Anyone tapping into public Wi-Fi should be aware of two issues involving cybercriminals: spoofing and downloading.
Smartphones can easily become hotspots, and every device has a name. Cybercriminals can simply name their hotspot something that sounds legit, like “Free Library Internet,” and hang out there all day. Meanwhile, dozens of library patrons can unknowingly connect to the cybercriminal’s Wi-Fi.
“As people connect to it thinking they’re doing something perfectly legitimate, I’m now in between them and wherever they’re trying to go,” John said. “With the right tools, I can see everything they are doing.”
Cybercriminals could require something as innocuous as an email address or name when connecting to their fake public Wi-Fi. When paired with credit card or banking information pulled while you’re using their hotspot, they might have enough data to cause significant damage.
Another tactic cybercriminals employ is creating fake prompts asking users to download updates.
The message could say you need to update your operating system or download a new version of a social media app. What you could be doing is downloading malware or viruses directly onto your mobile device or laptop. And once you do, cybercriminals have access to literally everything you type or save. This includes usernames, passwords, credit card and bank account numbers, social security numbers, addresses, files or documents, emails, photos and videos. They even may be able to access your company’s server if you use your computer for work.
Tips to stay safe while using public Wi-Fi
John advises to take a safety-first approach when connecting with public Wi-Fi. Simply looking for faster speeds is not a great reason to connect. Public Wi-Fi is generally safe for browsing the Internet, checking scores and watching videos. However, avoid logging in to any sites.
If you need to tap into public Wi-Fi, though, here are some cybersecurity tips:
- Use a Virtual Private Network: A VPN is an additional log in step before computer users start browsing or working. “It’s something that can be considered an inconvenience, an extra step you have to take, but all you’re basically doing is from the device you’re using, you’re connecting to an outside server to send all of your traffic there first,” John said. “When done correctly, you’re also encrypting that traffic.”
- Update your operating system: Keep your smartphone, laptop and tablet up to date. Software updates typically are filled with security patches designed to protect your device.
- Know the real public Wi-Fi name: Hotels often print Wi-Fi instructions on the little envelope that holds your room key or a notecard by the nightstand inside your guest room. When in doubt, just ask a front desk associate, barista, librarian or airport information booth employee.
- Develop situational awareness: Always use your gut instinct. “When there is a good way to use something, there is also a bad way to use it, and there are people out there willing to do those things,” John said.
READ THE STORY: The dangers of using public Wi-Fi