7 Handy Tips on How to Stay Safe on Public Wi-Fi
Public Wi-Fi problems go beyond merely having to ask a waiter for a password.
Like it or not, staying connected everywhere, anytime, is our reality. It can be hard to resist the urge to constantly visit the “online world”.
But, as we increasingly live online, the ability to access the internet wherever you are is super useful. That’s why we can find public places with free Wi-Fi everywhere. This includes restaurants, parks, dentist offices, and more. Still, there are quite a few dangers of public Wi-Fi, and we are talking about more than just hard-to-remember passwords.
In this guide, we’ll explore:
- is public Wi-Fi safe by default?
- the main risks of public Wi-Fi to your online security
- four ways hackers can use public Wi-Fi to profit from your information
- the best ways to enhance your security by using VPN for public Wi-Fi
Online security is Clario’s area of expertise so we’ll let you in on our top tips.
What is public Wi-Fi, and is it safe by default?
Remember all the places you have to wear a mask these days, due to Covid-19? These are public places, and the Wi-Fi you use in them is considered public, even if it’s not free.
Airports, administrative buildings, cafes and shopping malls, hotels, hospitals, and even some parks offer access to the internet. The number of public hotspots all over the world is impressive: 362 million in 2019, according to Statista. But is public Wi-Fi safe? To be brutally honest, not a bit.
The thing you have to remember about connecting to the internet in public places is how it is insecure by default. Leaks of your personal information are quite possible and can happen frequently. You may not realize how much critical information your phone can reveal about you, but believe us, it offers would-be hackers considerable insights into you, your behaviors and personality, to say the least. And by connecting to public Wi-Fi, you put this personal digital data at risk.
So, what now? Should we completely avoid using public Wi-Fi spots? Let’s not be so definite about public Wi-Fi since it can be really useful if you have taken the appropriate cybersecurity measures to protect yourself. Our task is to make using it as safe as possible.
Secured and unsecured public Wi-Fi
You’ve probably noticed how some Wi-Fi hotspots are free and open, and you can connect to them whenever you’re in range. These are usually networks in airports, malls, stadiums, etc. Other spots have some security features; a password at least, a usage fee at most.
These are the two types of public Wi-Fi: secured and unsecured networks. You should use the latter only if you can’t find a secured network to connect to and you absolutely need it. They are, well, insecure. While it’s easy to instantly connect to an unsecured open spot, we do not recommend choosing this option - public Wi-Fi security level is zero.
Secured public Wi-Fi is a bit more protected. Often, it will require some information from you:
- password and/or username
- your agreement to some legal terms
- to create an account
- to provide your email or phone number
- to pay a fee
Now, let’s talk about the risks associated with using public Wi-Fi in more detail.
Public Wi-Fi risks: What problems are out there?
Check this out: the frequency of hacker attacks on devices connected to the internet is a whopping 39 seconds. This terrifying fact was revealed by Mickel Cukier from the University of Maryland. What’s even more interesting, is how...
"...most of these attacks employ automated scripts that indiscriminately seek out thousands of computers at a time, looking for vulnerabilities."
Public Wi-Fi is one of the easiest ways for hackers to get people’s data - this, and your financial details are the top reasons for all cybercrimes. Via public servers, hackers can easily intercept and exploit users’ sensitive information, and you never know how it will be used. The IMF (International Monetary Fund) states that digital identities, credit card and bank details are the second most-wanted “goods” on the dark web, after drugs.
You have to take care of securing your digital identity just as you need to look after and protect yourself in the physical world. If you think someone accessing your name or date of birth is nothing to worry about, then you need to think again. When you’re getting hacked on public Wi-Fi, your name, email, home address and phone number, bank details, insurance, and medical information are at risk of being stolen and used in a variety of ways. In particular, the leak of your info via public Wi-Fi can be used to:
- spam you with irrelevant ads
- create fake medical receipts and buy drugs in your name
- submit applications for loans or credit cards on your behalf
- steal your digital identity - and this can lead to a huge number of crimes
- make purchases online with your money or by transferring funds from your accounts
Here are some common ways hackers can access your personal info.
How can hackers use public Wi-Fi?
One of the critical problems of the public hotspot is the lack of security and encryption, which criminals easily use to their advantage. Here are just a few ways hackers can get to you via public Wi-Fi.
A so-called Man-in-the-Middle (MitM) attack leverages the vulnerability of public Wi-Fi spots to intercept the information going from your smartphone or computer to the website or service you access. This way, all the data you exchange with third-party services via public Wi-Fi can potentially be caught by the “man in the middle”.
Rogue Access Points
Imagine you’re sitting in Starbucks, and you want to connect to Wi-Fi. Since it’s a reputable, world-famous cafe, you believe the Starbucks Wi-Fi is secure - well, to the point any public spot can be. You choose the spot named, say, Starbucks01, and connect.
However, criminals often mimic the names of popular hotspots, then add malicious ones instead. This way, you connect to the rogue source and this makes your sensitive data visible for hackers. So, before connecting to any spot with a familiar sounding name, ask the waiter about the proper network name.
Sniffers, or, as they are called traditionally, packet analyzers, are initially used to monitor online traffic and reveal random errors. But sniffers can become a powerful tool in the wrong hands as they collect contact information and other personal data. With the help of specific software, hackers can discover your browsing history as well as any information you’ve shared with websites you visited. Ouch.
The majority of wireless routers don’t have default encryption - it has to be set manually. This means you often communicate with the router via an unprotected channel. Add your phone’s or laptop’s software vulnerabilities to this, and there’s a high chance you’ll be exposed to malware. There are also so-called worms: a kind of computer virus that lives in the networks, collects vital data, then transfers it to the hacker.
Hackers are quite inventive when it comes to gathering sensitive information. Can we do anything to protect ourselves in public networks? Yes, the answer is a Virtual Private Network (VPN).
VPN for public Wi-Fi: Eliminating risks where we can
How can a VPN help you? It encrypts your personal information and hides your IP address, making your browsing anonymous. It’s like an additional layer of protection between your smartphone or computer and the website you’re accessing. Here’s how VPN protects data on public Wi-Fi:
✅ VPN turns any information you share with websites into an encoded message, so hackers cannot decipher your financial details or personal data
✅ VPN makes your IP address invisible so criminals cannot find or trace any personal information back to you
✅ Using a VPN eliminates the risk of identity theft
If you want to shop online or run some banking operations via public Wi-Fi, you are free to do so with a VPN. However, pay attention to the VPNs you pick: free options are not always the best choice.
There are free offers across the web, but researchers recently found severe vulnerabilities in the top ten VPNs available from the Google Play Store. In particular, these solutions were proven to be vulnerable to MitM attacks. So, it’s better to set up a reliable VPN for a reasonable monthly fee and rest assured that your sensitive information is well-protected.
Keep your data safe on public Wi-Fi
If you’re not ready to try and use a VPN for public Wi-Fi, here are some basic rules you have to follow to reduce the dangers of using free public Wi-Fi spots:
- Choose secured networks over unsecured ones
- Don’t access your banking accounts and try not to shop online via the public spots
- Disable automatic connection settings - you don’t want your smartphone to catch every unsecured network in the area.
- Keep your Bluetooth connection turned off as well
- Check the address of the website you access. Ideally, it should start with HTTPS (not HTTP).
- Don’t install any applications or updates when using a public network
- Don’t connect to unfamiliar or strange Wi-Fi spots
If you want complete peace of mind, then have a security app and a VPN installed on every device used outside of your home network. This will ensure you don’t fall victim to any fraudsters while you’re online.
Why don’t you put a stop to unsafe browsing right now with Clario VPN?
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