Keeping Safe While Connecting on the Go

Internet memes have jokingly added “free wifi” to the pyramid in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, wedged under the need for safety and the need for adequate food. But the reality is no laughing matter.

We’ve quickly gone from the days when hotels and restaurants proudly displayed signs advertising free wifi to their customers, to walking into a place of business and assuming there was an available connection. But even as connection speeds and availability reach practically everywhere we go, one thing about public wifi hasn’t changed: the potential for hacking, data breaches, and identity theft.

There are specific threats that come from connecting to the internet over public, unsecured wifi. Some of them are common sense, while others are fairly sneaky.

  1. Free isn’t really free – We’re accustomed to worrying about hackers hiding within a network, stealing our information, but what too many users overlook is the source of the wifi itself. Offering customers free internet connections used to just be a perk of doing business, or a selling point that got you in their door instead of their competitors’ doors. Now, however, third-party data gathering is a very real threat, sometimes perpetrated by the owner of the connection. Since the wifi use you “agreed” to when you clicked “accept” is owned by the business, their terms and conditions can state that they can monitor your activity, track the websites you visit, and more. This is ostensibly for the purposes of knowing their customers better and offering better services or deals, so as long as you’re aware (and okay with) this behavior, it can actually lead to a happier relationship with that business. If you’re not okay with having your privacy poked at, then don’t connect.
  1. What’s in a name? – If you go to Bob’s Barbeque and look for available connections, you’ll typically see a short list of available wifi. Some will have a padlock symbol, indicating they’re secured and require a password. Here’s the real danger: You see a connection called BobBBQGuest; “guest” is a very common name that indicates customers are invited to use that one. But what stops a hacker from setting up his own internet connection and naming it BobBBQGuest? Nothing. Before you connect, make sure you inquire if there is free wifi, and what the name on the connection is. Many places of business actually offer password-protected guest networks, meaning it’s still free but you have to request the password to connect. Those are a safer bet than a random, unsecured connection.
  1. There’s no such thing as private – The old adage about the internet is even more true today than when the world wide web first took off, especially where public connections are concerned: nothing is ever deleted, and nothing is ever truly private. Even if you’re connected to a secured guest network, you cannot know who else is on that connection and what they’re doing behind your back. Make sure you’re only connecting to non-sensitive websites (not your online banking or work email, for example), and only engaging in internet behavior that you wouldn’t mind a hacker seeing. Save your sensitive activity for your password-protected, secure home network. (Your home network is password protected, right?!)
  1. Don’t connect by mistake – It’s important to be aware of the connections around you, so if you’re going somewhere that might have dozens of wifi connections—like a shopping mall or a major city—it’s a good idea to turn off the wifi on your smartphone or tablet when you’re not using it. First, it will save your battery life, but you also have no way of knowing if your phone connected automatically to a wifi connection, which is particularly problematic if you’ve connected to that network in the past. Theoretically, once you’re connected a hacker can access your phone. This is admittedly a far-fetched scenario, but it is still possible.
  1. BYOB (Bring Your Own Box) – If you’re someone who travels extensively or spends a lot of time away from home while connecting to the internet, it might be a good idea to invest in a personal hotspot. This small box is no bigger than your smartphone, and there are prepaid and contract-based plans from most major cellular service providers. This would give you the advantage of connecting to your own password-protected wifi everywhere you go, but be aware that there are costs associated with it and that it is possible to go over your data allotment.

Anyone can be a victim of identity theft, anyone can use our services, and anyone can help us help others. If you found this information useful, please consider donating to the Identity Theft Resource Center to help us keep our services free to the public.



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