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Avoid the perils of public Wi-Fi

Is your computer protected -- and do you know what's at risk?

By Mitch Lipka Aug 5, 2013 5:50PM
Man with laptop © Ken Seet/SuperStockWhether it's at a coffee shop, airport or bookstore, free Wi-Fi is a convenience for just about anyone with a tablet, smartphone or laptop. But what are you risking by going on a public network and what can you do to protect yourself?

By connecting your device to an open wireless connection, you run the risk of having your activity being monitored and, potentially, handing over your passwords and other personal and financial information. Most of us have rolled the dice and survived, but do you really want experience the consequences on the day you weren't so lucky?

If you're using secure sites that are encrypted, you should be OK. But most people bounce around sites of all sorts, including those that are not encrypted. That's where using a VPN (virtual private network) could help. Many workplaces provide VPNs so employees can do their work -- and connect to internal networks -- without risking giving access to an outsider with bad intentions. Those who don't have a work VPN can get access through services such as Private WiFi, which charges about $10 per month and $85 for a year of service. In addition, there are browser add-ons and apps that will also help ensure secure connections.

Note this warning about public hotspots from AT&T:

The unsecured nature and ease of connection to public Wi-Fi hotspots increases the risk that unauthorized persons can access your phone, laptop or other device or your communications over the Wi-Fi network. Wi-Fi customers should take precautions to lower the security risks. If you have VPN, AT&T recommends that you connect through it for optimum security. AT&T also encourages its users to observe standard security practices. You should ensure that computer hard drives are not shared; that laptops have firewall protection; and that security software is installed, functional and updated on your device. AT&T recommends that you avoid transmitting or accessing sensitive personal information over the Wi-Fi network, and that you only connect to known Wi-Fi hotspots.

The Federal Trade Commission suggests being sure the entire time you're on a device at a hotspot you are certain you are using encrypted sites. "To be secure, your entire visit to each site should be encrypted – from the time you log in to the site until you log out. If you think you’re logged in to an encrypted site but find yourself on an unencrypted page, log out right away."

If you're done using an account, log out of it, the FTC suggests. Another key bit of safety advice when using public Wi-Fi -- particularly if you do end up having a particular password snagged -- is to be sure to differentiate passwords. If you lose that password, you run the risk of having multiple accounts compromised rather than one.

In addition, be sure that you have current security software. It's not really an option in today's world. Plenty of good programs are available for free and can alert you when you've hit a malicious site or another device is attempting to access information from your device.

In case you've fallen victim, the FTC recently issued new guidance about dealing with hacked accounts. Some warning signs are those who know you getting messages you didn't send (they'll appear in your sent mail), posts to social networks in your name that you didn't make, and/or losing the ability to log into your accounts.

"In the case of emails with random links, it’s possible your email address was 'spoofed,' or faked, and hackers don’t actually have access to your account," the FTC said. "But you’ll want to take action, just in case."

Here are some actions the FTC suggests you take if you have been hacked:

  • Change your passwords if you can.
  • Contact your email provider or social network about regaining control of your accounts.
  • After you've regained control, be sure the vandals didn't leave behind a mess such as adding "friends" to your account or leaving an away message with links or a forwarding address.
  • Notify your contacts what happened so they don't get taken for a ride.

Public Wi-Fi might present a bit of a minefield, but it's one that can be safely navigated.

Aug 5, 2013 9:47PM
Just be sure that you never log onto important accounts while on public WiFi.  Just wait until you are home or at work if there is a secure network there. 
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