4 Ways To Stay Safe While Using Public WiFi

I recently upgraded from a desktop computer to a laptop and overall the results are wonderful. I’m not a huge fan of change so it wasn’t an easy choice to make. But after listening to a few of respected Internet marketer James Martell’s podcasts, such as the one where his son Justin informs listeners about the best technological devices for home businesses, I felt confident enough to brave the new horizon. After transferring my files to an external hard drive and backing them up using an online file storage company, I recycled the old dinosaur and traded in my executive-sized desk for a smaller, more contemporary model.

The freedom to come and go and work on the road has resulted in an overall improvement in the quality of my work, and has given new meaning to the term “work your own hours”. I can hit my local java café first thing in the morning to knock out a couple of hours’ worth of work, or work well into the night after checking in at a hotel while traveling. And I find that I’m more productive; I get more work done in a much shorter amount of time. I’m happier, and my clients are happier with the work I give them.

When a recent attack on public WiFi at a local fast food restaurant made the front page headline of my town’s weekly newspaper, it caused me to take a technological step back. How careful had I been with my personal information? And how was it that I could be an objective of a public WiFi attack in the first place?

Hackers Gonna Hack

A little internet research showed that it wasn’t as difficult as one might expect. Hackers use a few different ways to target you when they attack public WiFi services, such as the ones found in coffee shops, fast food restaurants, hotels, or even in your local library. In fact, for residents who subscribe to their DSL services, my town’s telephone company has rigged the entire town up for WiFi. Subscribers can log in anywhere from their doctor’s office to the dog park, and all points in between whether it’s inside or outdoors, just so long as it’s in range. Here are a few ways hackers could attempt to target you if you’re using public WiFi.

Man-in-the-Middle – Back when the Bee Gees sang, “I’m just the man in the middle of a complicated plan…” they weren’t talking about WiFi hackers. But the song lyric isn’t far off the mark. This kind of attack breaks into the middle of the complicated process that passes data between your internet devices, whether they are computers, smartphones, tablets like an iPad, and the WiFi access point. If you use a credit card online, or even just sign into an e-retailer like Amazon using a password, the hacker can retrieve that information at a later time and use it however they wish.

Evil Twin – In classic whodunit mysteries, if the butler didn’t do it, then certainly it must have been the evil twin, right? In this case the answer is yes. Evil twins provide seemingly harmless public WiFi services while collecting all information you provide just by tapping into the signal.

Get the Target off Your Back

At this point you may be wondering, is it safe to use public WiFi at all? The answer is YES! It’s completely safe to use public WiFi as long as you practice responsible networking behavior. You wouldn’t leave your iPad unattended without first using an iPad security lock cable to ensure that it wouldn’t disappear while your back was turned, and the same goes for using public WiFi. Here are some ways you can stay safe while online.

Know who manages what network. If you’re at a coffee house and plan to use their WiFi, don’t use the connection from someone’s apartment across the street just because it’s faster. If you aren’t sure, ask. And if someone at the business isn’t sure, then maybe it’s not such a good idea to use their WiFi after all.

Whenever possible, use a password-protected connection, like a WPA or WEP. Even though it’s only a little more protection than free WiFi offered at a lot of fast food places, the more protection you have, the better. For instance, in one town where I stayed anyone could use the WiFi at the ice cream parlor downtown, but to use the WiFi at the tavern patrons were required to show photo identification in order to get the password from the bartender.

Always keep antivirus programs running in the background while you’re online, and update the software regularly. If you aren’t running an antivirus program, then you’ve not only put a target on laptop, but you’ve also added a figurative neon sign that says, “Hey! Hackers! I’m over here, wide open and ready for your visit!” It might sound silly but that’s exactly what it’s like.

Firewalls are your friends. Most of the reputable antivirus software programs on the market today have a decent firewall listed as a standard security feature. If you use Windows 7, take advantage of its built-in firewall protection as well.

A lot of online security boils down to old-fashioned common sense. One fellow blogger offers this rule of thumb – don’t do anything over a public WiFi connection that you wouldn’t feel comfortable publishing on the front page of the local newspaper or a social networking site. You wouldn’t tweet sensitive information like your passwords or credit card details, so don’t use websites requiring that kind of information – like Amazon or PayPal – unless you’re on a secure connection. Finally, keep an eye on your surroundings.

Anyone who can see your laptop screen, whether they’re actively staring at it or not, has the ability to read everything you type, or glimpse at every website you visit.

Jacob Richardson first began working online as an internet researcher, a job with skills that help with a lot of his current assignments as a freelance author. He often takes inspiration for his articles from his everyday life, for example using public WiFi to access the internet while traveling away from home. When he’s not researching information for his next article or writing tips to help people stay safe online for www.locksondemand.com, Jacob enjoys spending time with his family and hiking the scenic trails around his home.