Why Should you Worry about Using Free Wi-Fi?

by Lisa Hayden
dangers of public wifi hotspots

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.

If you're working on the go, hackers can use your connection to breach your company and steal business records and personal information. If you're chatting with a friend, a malicious third party can steal your personal information from your computer and then either sell it online or use it to gain access to other networks. Even those who are simply kicking back and watching the news or surfing the web can be compromised via an unnoticeable hack that is enables a cybercriminal to continually collect your information and use it as he or she sees fit.

Related: Why Does My Wi-Fi Say Weak Security

What are the Dangers?

why should you worry about free wifi

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 actually going to an unnamed cybercriminal. 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 normally does are all warning signs that you've been caught in a MitM attack. 
  • DNS spoofing. Hackers often create what look like legitimate websites in order to trick unsuspecting users into logging on a seemingly authentic site and 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 on a regular basis 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 names that are similar but not identical to genuine websites.
  • Rouge Wi-Fi networks. Not all free wi-fi networks are installed by government employees or business owners. Some are set up by hackers 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 with free access to all your internet activity. 
  • Unsecured Wi-Fi connections. Even well-meaning business owners can unwittingly help cybercriminals by failing to properly secure a business network. In some instances, 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. In any case, the end result is that the free wi-fi connection is completely unsecured and thus easy for hackers to gain access to 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 gain access to your data. If you're using a vulnerable app over an open internet connection and your phone does not have strong anti-virus protection, you could be setting yourself up for a devastating cyberattack.
  • Failure to properly identify a public network. Most people know that free wi-fi hotspots should be identified as public networks rather than home or work networks. However, it's all too easy to click the wrong button when connecting in a hurry and/or when distracted by other activity. Identifying an unsecured public network as a trusted home or work network gives hackers access to not only your online activity but also all the documents and files on your device.

How to Prevent Breaches While Using Public Wi-Fi

prevent breaches while browsing on public wifi

Some experts recommend avoiding public wi-fi altogether. While doing so can be wise, it's simply not realistic for many people who need to access the internet while out and about. Thankfully, there are ways to take advantage of all that free wi-fi hot-spots have to offer without compromising your personal information. 

Invest in a Proxy Server and/or VPN Connection

What is a proxy server? Don't feel bad if you don't know the answer. Most people either aren't familiar with these servers or don't understand how they can be used to secure your internet connection. 

A proxy server is essentially a protective "man in the middle" that routes all internet traffic to and from your device through a secure server. These serves anonymize your traffic so hackers can't see who you are and what you're doing online. What's more, 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 not only browse the web anonymously but also 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 difficult for you to finish your work online in a timely manner.

Keep Your Programs Updated

Any device that you use to connect to the internet should have a strong anti-virus program. What's more, you need to make sure 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 to do so. 

Limit the Work you Do from a Free Wi-Fi Connection

Best Wifi extender

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 full protection, as some hackers simply position themselves in such a way that they're able to 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 they help you stay in touch with clients, co-workers, supervisors, business partners, and others. At the same time, 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 all that free wi-fi hotspots have to offer without compromising your business and/or personal information.

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