Why Should You be Careful When Using Hotspots or Free Wi-Fi?

These days, it’s not uncommon for us to connect to Wi-Fi wherever we go. In fact, we’ve come to expect there will be a Wi-Fi connection—at hotels, coffee shops, airports, and now even on some flights—pretty much everywhere. While the ability to connect just about anywhere is convenient, it also has opened the door for hackers to gain access to our personal information.

If you are using an unsecured connection—in public, at home or in the office—you run the risk of exposing your sensitive data to hackers. While it may seem strange to worry about bad guys snatching our personal information from what seems to be thin air, unfortunately, it’s more common than we think. If they hack the Wi-Fi connection you are using, they can not only see data stored on your computer, but see data you are typing into online sites.

Some hackers specifically search for unsecured wireless connections driving to different areas to find them and sit quietly across the street while accessing all your info. They also will often set up fake free Wi-Fi connections or hotspots specifically aimed to steal your information.

The good news is there are things you can proactively do to help protect yourself when using Wi-Fi connections:

Basic Connection Tips:

Turn off Wi-Fi. When you’re not using your Wi-Fi connection on any of your devices, it’s good practice to turn it off. That way it won’t automatically connect to any Wi-Fi that is in the area. And for your mobile devices, it will help save your battery life since your mobile will not be constantly searching for an available Wi-Fi connection.

Only connect to secure connections and save your sensitive searching for home. Make sure that any network you connect to away from home, such as those in cafes and hotels, are secure. You can tell when a network is not secured because you will see a message when you connect saying that you are “connecting to an unsecured network.” And if you are using an unsecured network, do not shop online or access any of your personal and financial sites.

Only use HTTPS. HTTPS, or hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) with secure sockets layer (SSL, hence the S after HTTP), is a more secure option set up by a website owner who knows security is essential. Look for “HTTPS://” in the address bar to signify you are on a secure page. Even on an open, unsecured wireless connection, HTTPS is more secure than HTTP.

Tips to Protecting Your Home Wireless Connection:

Password protect your Wi-Fi connection. You can set your router to allow access only to those users who enter the correct password. These passwords are encrypted (scrambled) when they are transmitted so that hackers who try to intercept your connection can’t read the information.

Change the password on your router. Router manufacturers usually assign a default user name and password allowing you to setup and configure the router. Hackers often know these default logins, so it’s important to change the password to something more difficult to crack so your router settings cannot be changed by a hacker.

Change the identifier on your router. Each router is also assigned a default identifier, or Service Set ID (SSID), by its manufacturer. This ID is usually broadcast by the router to announce its presence to any devices in the area. Once again, hackers have done their homework and use default IDs to try to gain access to your network. Your best bet to keeping the bad guys out is changing the identifier to something only you know. For some routers, you can also turn off the broadcasting of this ID, so it can’t be seem by other devices when trying to connect.

Knowing that you could be vulnerable on Wi-Fi connections is a good first step to taking the proper precautions to protect your data and information.

Robert Siciliano is an Online Security Expert to McAfee. He is the author of 99 Things You Wish You Knew Before Your Mobile was Hacked!  Disclosures.