It’s not hard to find free wi-fi. Train stations, airports, private businesses, and other locations typically offer open wi-fi connections so clients or travelers can stay connected to the internet as they go about their day. However, the fact that free wi-fi is an easily accessible option doesn’t mean you should readily use it without taking proper precautions.
Cybercriminals can easily access computers via open wi-fi connections, causing untold damage to you and anyone else who may be connected to your network. Hackers can use your connection to breach your company and steal business records and personal information if you’re working on the go.
If you’re chatting with a friend, a malicious third party can steal your personal information from your computer, sell it online, or use it to access other networks. Even those simply kicking back and watching the news or surfing the web can be compromised via an unnoticeable hack that enables a cybercriminal to continually collect your information and use it as he or she sees fit.
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What are the Dangers?
Experts agree that the dangers of connecting to an open wi-fi are real. Here are some of the pitfalls to watch out for:
Man in the Middle (MitM) attacks. In a man-in-the-middle attack, a cybercriminal gains access to your internet connection and acts as an intermediary between you and whatever site you are accessing. If, for instance, you’re doing online banking, all the information you’re sending your bank is going to unnamed cybercriminals.
The criminal will often forward your communications, so you won’t know you’ve been breached, but there are telltale signs that an unauthorized third party is accessing your information.
A jumpy screen, odd-looking log-in pages, fake software update pop-ups, and/or a computer that generally isn’t running as smoothly as it usually does are all warning signs that you’ve been caught in a MitM attack.
DNS spoofing. Hackers often create legitimate websites to trick unsuspecting users into logging on to a seemingly authentic site, thus providing a hacker with valuable log-in and password information. Bear in mind that this tactic isn’t just used on banking websites.
Hackers know that many people use a single password for multiple accounts and therefore clone any website you’re likely to log into regularly in the hopes of gaining password information for other important sites. Check your URL carefully before typing in your username and password; cloned websites have similar names but are not identical to genuine websites.
Rouge Wi-Fi networks. Not all free wi-fi networks are installed by government employees or business owners. Hackers set some up to gain access to your private information. The problem is, you can’t always tell which open network belongs to a legitimate business and which doesn’t. Logging into a rogue wi-fi network provides hackers free access to all your internet activity.
Unsecured Wi-Fi connections. Even well-meaning business owners can unwittingly help cybercriminals by failing to secure a business network properly. Sometimes, a company owner may not realize that he or she needs to invest in a secure network that uses encryption technology to protect patrons from cyberattacks.
In other instances, a business owner may feel that such a network is too expensive. The result is that the free wi-fi connection is wholly unsecured and thus accessible for hackers to access at will.
Unsecured apps. There are over four million apps available on the Apple App store and the Google Play store, and nearly half of all mobile phone users open an app at least eleven times a day. Sadly, not all apps are fully secure. Some have vulnerabilities that make it easy for hackers to access your data. Suppose you’re using a vulnerable app over an open internet connection, and your phone does not have strong anti-virus protection. In that case, you could be setting yourself up for a devastating cyberattack.
Failure to correctly identify a public network. Most people know that free wi-fi hotspots should be recognized as public networks rather than home or work. However, it’s all too easy to click the wrong button when connecting in a hurry and/or when distracted by other activities.
Identifying an unsecured public network as a trusted home or work network gives hackers access to your online activity and all the documents and files on your device.
How to Prevent Breaches While Using Public Wi-Fi
Some experts recommend avoiding public wi-fi altogether. While doing so can be wise, it’s unrealistic for many people who need internet access while out and about. Thankfully, there are ways to take advantage of all that free wi-fi hot-spots without compromising your personal information.
Invest in a Proxy Server and/or VPN Connection
A proxy server is a protective “man in the middle” that routes all internet traffic to and from your device through a secure server. These servers anonymize your traffic so hackers can’t see who you are and what you’re doing online. Moreover, a good proxy server can block suspicious sites, so you don’t unwittingly log on to a fake website designed to steal your credentials.
A VPN performs many of the same functions as a proxy server but offers a higher level of security than proxy servers. With a VPN, you’ll be able to browse the web anonymously and encrypt all traffic to and from the internet. Experts recommend using a VPN if you frequently use public wi-fi connections to conduct business.
There are both free and premium VPNs and proxy servers. It’s best to invest in a reliable server or VPN connection, as free options often slow down your internet speed, making it challenging to finish your work online promptly.
Keep Your Programs Updated
Any device you use to connect to the internet should have a strong anti-virus program. What’s more, you need to ensure your anti-virus program regularly updates itself so new hacking technologies can’t compromise your systems.
At the same time, it’s not just your anti-virus program that needs regular updating. All your software programs need patching and updates from time to time. Make time for these, as updates often fix vulnerabilities that hackers can use to gain access to your system.
Adjust your Wi-Fi Settings
Your computer should not automatically connect to a public network until you’ve had time to check the network out and make sure it’s safe and at least reasonably secure. Adjust your settings to manually log onto a network once you’ve decided it’s a good idea.
Limit the Work you Do from a Free Wi-Fi Connection
Avoid doing online banking, online shopping, or working on sensitive business information when using a public internet connection. Even taking the precautions mentioned above won’t offer complete protection, as some hackers position themselves so that they can see what others are doing around them. Save sensitive work for the office or another venue that offers full protection from prying eyes.
Free wi-fi connections are a mixed blessing. They make it possible for you to work from anywhere and help you stay in touch with clients, co-workers, supervisors, business partners, and others. At the same time, the public network is often easier to hack than home or business servers.
For this reason, you should remain alert and cautious when working from a free wi-fi connection. Check your URLs carefully, don’t click on pop-ups or email links, and invest in a secure proxy server or VPN to keep your private information from falling into the wrong hands. With the right tools and precautions, you can take full advantage of free wi-fi hotspots without compromising your business and/or personal information.