Although many of us rely on secure wireless, Ethernet, or Broadband connections in our homes or at work, we may throw caution to the wind when we’re out and about. In public places, we still feel the need to check our social media channels, reply to emails, and access important information. Often, that means depending on public Wi-Fi access. One recent study found that approximately 70% of tablet owners and 53% of mobile phone users used free, public Wi-Fi hotspots to obtain an internet connection. What’s more, 53% of people surveyed said they used public Wi-Fi access about once per week.
Unfortunately, the urge to stay on top of those posts and updates can come with a cost. Hackers tend to love Wi-Fi networks (especially unsecured ones) because they’re prone to vulnerabilities that criminals can easily exploit. That means if you’ve connected to public Wi-Fi that doesn’t require a password, it’s far more likely that a hacker could access your personal information.
Shockingly, that’s a fact a lot of people seem to realize — but it doesn’t stop them from connecting anyway. Approximately 60% of consumers believe that using public Wi-Fi is riskier than using a public restroom. However, one recent survey found that 39% of the U.S. adults who used public Wi-Fi said they accessed or transmitted sensitive information during their session. Of those, 26% said they checked their bank account, 19% said they paid a bill, 8% said they sent an email containing sensitive information (like an account number or Social Security Number), and 6% said they filed their taxes. Even more telling is the fact that an overwhelming number of survey participants knew the risks of using public Wi-Fi may include identity theft, compromised accounts, and fraudulent tax filings.
Public Wi-Fi is certainly a convenient perk, so it’s understandable why we don’t want to give it up. The reality is that we don’t have to. As long as you know how to use it properly, you shouldn’t have much to worry about.
When Using Public Wi-Fi…
- Connect only to secured networks: Unsecured networks allow you to connect without a password, account, or term agreement. It may seem easier, but it’s also a lot less safe. It could even be a rogue hotspot, which is a connection set up by hackers specifically to take your information. Take the time to find a protected Wi-Fi network whenever possible.
- Use a VPN: A virtual private network acts as an encrypted barrier between you and the Wi-Fi network. Any data that you send or receive during your session will be protected from others connected to the same network. In other words, your information will be inaccessible to criminals.
- Disable Bluetooth Connectivity: Bluetooth connections can be useful in certain circumstances, but you won’t want any of your devices to be discoverable when you’re in a public place. You should also disable file sharing and automatic connectivity settings.
- Access or Input Sensitive Data: Even if you’re using a VPN and a secured network, you should never access your bank accounts, enter sensitive personal information (even to log in to a site you use regularly), or shop online when you’re on public Wi-Fi. Although a website may have an “https:” address, it’s still better to err on the side of caution and wait until you’re back home.
- Use Your Apps: According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, researchers have found that many apps don’t encrypt information in the way they should. Any app that requires your login information or other data should be avoided when you’re connected to public Wi-Fi. That may put a damper on your planned activities, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
- Leave Your Device Unattended: If you’ve gone to all the work to secure your network but leave your laptop open while you grab another cup of coffee, you’ll probably end up kicking yourself later. Someone could easily steal your device or access your information without ever having to hack into a network.
Although public Wi-Fi can make your life easier, it can make the lives of hackers easier, too. If you want to protect your private information, these tips can help you browse the web safely — no matter where you are.