A virtual private network (VPN) is a digital tool that keeps outsiders, such as hackers, identity thieves, spammers and even advertisers from seeing your online activity. VPN is an installed piece of software on your laptop or desktop that is either stand-alone or bundled with your antivirus or security software. For mobile devices, VPN can be a downloadable app from your manufacturer’s preferred app store.
Everyone needs one, especially people who use their computers or devices for any kind of sensitive activity like business or data management. It might be work-related communications, file sharing with your team members or collaborating on a project. From a personal-use stance, using a VPN protects you while online banking, shopping at your favorite websites or just surfing online.
VPNs can have a few issues, namely that they are simply a safety net and not a catch-all for security. You can still end up hurt if you do not follow the rules of smart internet use, like good password hygiene and being careful of untrustworthy websites.
There is another problem with using VPNs: blocking. When you are traveling for business, for example, some hotels and airports may block the ports for a VPN, meaning you cannot use your VPN if connected to their Wi-Fi.
If your VPN is blocked and you need to rely on a public connection, your personal identifying information (PII) can be picked up by someone monitoring the connection. This is not just a concern for airport or airplane Wi-Fi. In one event, hackers used luxury hotel Wi-Fi to steal business executives’ data.
How serious is the problem? According to the Identity Theft Resource Center’s monthly data breach reporting of publicly available breach notifications, there have already been 246 business breaches this year. Of those, 23 percent of the exposed records involved unauthorized access attempts like phishing attacks. Another report stated hackers were able to infiltrate the public Wi-Fi of hundreds of different hotels, convention centers, and data centers in 29 different countries, including the U.S.
Fortunately, there are some steps you can take if you are having no success using your VPN:
- Disguise your VPN traffic as regular web browser traffic, which makes it impossible for the hotel’s network to block your VPN service
- Check with your office IT administrator about your computer’s configuration so they can log the situation and troubleshoot it for you
- If you cannot connect your computer to your VPN, try connecting your VPN to your hotspot on your phone for sensitive internet activities
NOTE: While a VPN can have performance issues like taking longer to connect or slowing down the browser, it is still a good way to keep your information safe and reduce your risk of falling victim to a crime. The slow-down “cost” is outweighed by the benefit of protecting your information.
Finally, whether you are using your VPN or not, it is important to never leave your device unattended at a conference, hotel, coffee shop, or other location, even for a moment. Make sure your passcode is enabled to help keep others out of your device, and enable the “find my device” option in your settings if the manufacturer provides it. You can also set up a pre-installed or downloaded tool to wipe your device remotely if it falls into the wrong hands.
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