Walk into any Starbucks, McDonald’s or the snack bar at the local public grocery store and you are certain to find people working on their laptops taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi these businesses offer. While this is a convenient (and free) way to access the web, it may not be the safest.
That’s because whenever you log onto a free Wi-Fi hot spot, you are using an unsecure connection. Everything you do – the sites you browse, the log-ins and passwords you type in, and the messages you send and receive – can easily be viewed by somebody with even the tiniest amount of hacking skills.
Free Wi-Fi is everywhere these days, making it incredibly handy. But to keep your information safe and your computer secure, it’s important that you be careful whenever you use it.
Avoid Financial Transactions
The biggest thing hackers are looking for when they troll public places offering free Wi-Fi is financial information, such as your bank account number, log-in and password, or your credit card numbers, expiration date and security key. Once they have that, they can clear out your accounts and rack your credit cards up to their credit limits before you ever know they have them.
If there is something you want to buy of if you need to access your financial accounts, it’s a good idea until you can wait until you can use a secured location, such as your home computer. Another option is to use a Virtual Privacy Network (VPN) that can encrypt what comes in and goes out of your computer, smart phone or mobile device so that other people outside your network can’t unscramble it.
What to Look Out For
In some cases, it’s the Wi-Fi connection itself that is phony. Known as “rogue access points”, these resemble standard free public Wi-Fi but direct users to a legitimate looking website that prompts them to provide information such as their credit card numbers.
Be aware of sites that ask you to re-enter your user name and password if the Internet browsers shows a message that says the security certificate is invalid. If that happens, your best move is to log off, shut down and restart your computer. It may mean a few minutes inconvenience, but it could help protect your personal information as well as the integrity of your laptop or mobile device.
Paid Wi-Fi Is Often Worth the Money
Some places that offer free Wi-Fi also offer a paid version. For very little money – usually a few dollars or less – users can buy a single-use password that allows them to log into a paid Wi-Fi connection that includes additional security measures, such as encryption and limited access.
And whenever using public Wi-Fi – both paid and free – avoid visiting websites that have the prefix “http:/” as opposed to “https:/”. The extra “S” means that the site has a security certificate that generally guarantees its safety. Sites with the prefix “http:/” are unsecured and could include malicious software or viruses.
Benefits of VPN
When you use a VPN for laptop or even your home computer, you are getting an additional safety barrier that helps protect your identity when working online. It also keeps harmful viruses and other malware from getting into your computer.
A VPN connection can sometimes slow down your computer a little, but that’s a small price to pay for what it delivers: Encryption on everything coming in and out of your computer; turning off all file, printing and sharing uses; and hiding your browsing history from outside parties.
VPNs can even allow you to change your IP address, which can be used by other people to identify you when you visit web pages or search the web. Some will even let you make it look like you are using the web from another country on another continent.
“Two Factor” Authentication
Another option is to enable “two factor” authentication on every website you use while connected to a public Wi-Fi system. This requires you to enter a second log-in, such as a special code that is emailed or texted to your smart phone, in order to gain access to the site. This prevents other people from stealing your log-ins then logging in as you long after you’ve left.
Finally, change your passwords frequently and make them stronger, meaning they are more difficult to hack. Strong passwords typically will include a capital letter, at least one number, and a typographical symbol such as a dollar sign ($), a hash tag (#) or the symbol for “at” (@).
While using free Wi-Fi in public places is convenient (not to mention that the price is right), it does come with some risks. Use these simple tips to protect your personal information, your computer, and to keep unwanted people from looking over your shoulder as you browse the Internet.
This article is written by Genevieve Peterson from http://anonymousvpnservice.com, an independently owned and operated VPN review website. If you’re on the lookout for a VPN service provider that protects your anonymity, make sure you check out this review about Private Internet Access before making the next move.