Whether you’re getting ready for a road trip, soaking up sun in the Caribbean, touring castles in Europe, or hiking through South American jungles, relying on public Wi-Fi hotspots is a must for many travelers who need to double check directions or just stay in touch.
Free Wi-Fi would seem to have few downsides. And with the global number of public Wi-Fi hotspots growing to 5.8 billion this year, the convenience of finding a place to sit down and log on has never been easier.
“The popularity of public Wi-Fi spots also make them enticing targets for hackers.”
Unfortunately, the popularity of public Wi-Fi spots also make them enticing targets for hackers. Dozens of users browsing, emailing, and chatting on a single network, whose password is displayed on the counter next to the biscotti, is about as tempting a target as there is.
Public Wi-Fi Isn’t Private
Wi-Fi signals are just radio waves — that means anyone with an ordinary laptop and questionable intentions can intercept all internet communications in any public hotspot.
And make no mistake; it takes zero hacking skills to monitor or hijack communications over a public Wi-Fi network. Widely available freeware makes eavesdropping on emails and web browsing as simple as pressing a button.
“The proliferation of public Wi-Fi is one of the biggest threats to consumer data,” says David Kennedy, founder of information security firm TrustedSec. “A hacker can monitor the network traffic of an entire store with an iPad-sized device hidden away in his backpack.” 
“A hacker can monitor the network traffic of an entire store with an iPad-sized device hidden away in his backpack.”
The issue isn’t just that the networks are so easy to attack — 79% of surveyed users state they know the danger of exposing their information, but less than half know how to protect their private information! Considering that at least a quarter of public Wi-Fi usage involves a credit card transaction, chances are you’ve also put yourself at risk. 
Where Should You Stay Safe?
Whether traveling or at home, you should always exercise caution when connecting to public Wi-Fi. However, hotspots that are extra-popular with hackers include:
- Onboard Wi-Fi and at airports
- Train stations and on trains
- Bus stations and on buses
- Coffee shops
- Hotel lobbies
- Parks with public Wi-Fi
How Wi-Fi Hacks Happen
Often, Wi-Fi users are completely unaware of the methods used by hackers to access their private data. Understanding the potential scenarios will help you assess any risks before connecting:
Others connected to the same network can use readily-available techniques to scan for data being sent to or from your device. This method of digital eavesdropping gives a hacker access to emails, texts, and even personal financial information.
Address Resolution Protocol (ARP) Spoofing & Sidejacking
After a hacker “sniffs” your web activity, he or she can redirect traffic while remaining undetected. Using the information gathered by software, they can clone your user accounts. This is common when users log into websites not protected by HTTPS (in other words, a secure connection). And once the clone is made? The hacker can do everything you can on the site — including transfer funds from your bank account.
This is when a hacker designs their own hotspot to look just like the public Wi-Fi spot you’re expecting to log into. When you use the connection to access personal data via entering login and password info, those private passwords are sent straight to the hacker. These “evil twin” Wi-Fi spots can even be launched from up to 300 feet away.
If two little computer symbols appear when you’re trying to connect to a wireless network, that means you’re actually connecting to someone else’s laptop. Once you connect to a shared network like this, all of your shared files can be accessed by every other computer within the network.
7 Safety Tips for Public Wi-Fi
Despite a hacker’s ability to use nefarious tactics to remain undetected, you don’t have to stay completely offline to avoid the risks of public Wi-Fi. Here are some simple precautions to ensure you enjoy a safer browsing experience:
1. Turn Off Automatic Sharing
When you're at home, you may share files, printers, or even allow remote login from other computers on your network. When you're on a public network though, you'll want to turn these things off, as anyone can access them. In fact, they don't even need to be a hacker! And depending on your setup, some of that stuff probably isn't even password protected.
You'll also want to turn off network discovery to prevent others from even seeing your machine on the network, meaning you're less likely to be targeted.
2. Turn Your Firewall On
If using a non-mobile device, your first line of defense against malicious intruders is a firewall. It helps monitor connections going in and out of your computer. To turn yours on when using a Windows OS, go to Control Panel > System and Security > Windows Firewall. On a Mac, go to System Preferences > Security and Privacy > Firewall.
You can also edit which applications are allowed access by ticking "Allow a program or feature" in Windows and "advanced" in OS X.
3. Confirm the Exact Network Name
Tempted to connect to a "Free Wi-Fi" hotspot? It's worth doing your homework before selecting any network that's open or not familiar to you. Ask someone who works at the location the exact name of the network to ensure you aren’t being lured into a duplicate connection just because it has a stronger signal.
4. Use Encrypted Websites
Regular website connections over HTTP exchange lots of plain text via the wireless network you're connected to, and someone with the right skills and bad intent can sniff out that traffic very easily. It's not that big of a deal when the text is some search terms you entered on Google, but it is a big deal when typing the password to your email account.
For safe surfing, enter “HTTPS://” before the web address — the “s” is most important and be sure it stays there on each page. Once there, you should see a green locked padlock icon next to the web address, to represent a secure connection.
5. Consider a Virtual Private Network
Unfortunately, not all sites offer security encryption. For consistent security, consider using a Virtual Private Network (VPN). These services let you route all your activity through a separate network, thus giving you the security of a private network even though you're on a public one.
6. Update Your Software
This includes anti-virus, malware and spyware programs. These will help you steer clear of fake security apps, worms, Trojans, and viruses. However, be sure to do this from a private connection at home or work.
7. Finally, Forget the Network
Once you are all done with your web browsing, make sure to log off any services you were signed into. Then, tell your device to forget the network. This means that your device won't automatically connect again to the network if you're in range.
In Windows, you can untick the "Connect Automatically" checkbox next to the network name before you connect, or head to Control Panel > Network and Sharing Center and click on the network name. Click on "Wireless Properties" and then untick "Connect automatically when this network is in range."
On Mac, head to System Preferences, go to Network, and under the Wi-Fi section click Advanced. Then untick "Remember networks this computer has joined." You can also individually remove networks by selecting the name and pressing the minus button underneath.
In Android, you can do this by entering into your Wi-Fi network list, long press the network name and select "Forget Network". On iOS, head to Settings, select Wi-Fi networks then select the network name and choose "Forget This Network". As an extra precaution, you should also turn on "Ask To Join Networks," which is also found in the Wi-Fi networks menu.
There Isn’t a Single Tool to Assure Safe Browsing
There is no magic bullet for data security. So, what if you're someone who likes to live on the edge and log into public Wi-Fi regularly?
Remember that hackers tend to target the lowest hanging fruit and a little awareness can go a long way in helping you safely enjoy the convenience of public Wi-Fi. The above safety tips should be considered a necessary checklist to really step up your privacy protection game. Ready to hit the road? Here’s a quick recap before the next time you log on:
- Turn off sharing
- Enable your firewall
- Confirm the network name
- Use an encrypted website whenever possible
- Consider a virtual private network
- Update your software
- Forget the network
Do you have any tips for safe public Wi-Fi surfing? We’d love to hear about what works for you in the comments below.
More on Travel Safety:
- 5 Airport Scams to Avoid the Next Time You Travel
- 6 Scams & Rip-Offs to Look Out for During Holiday Travel
- What to Do If You’re Robbed While Traveling
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