Alert
Close

Top the Trizzle leaderboard by 5 p.m. Friday to win a $100 gift card! Learn more

Bits & Bytes
Poll

Most Popular
Articles

Viewed

Scam Alert

Hot Spot Hacker

How to protect your data in a public space

You think you're logging into the coffee shop's Wi-Fi network to check your email. But you may actually be connecting to a crook.

Scammers have gone public, invading libraries, airports, hotel lobbies, coffee shops and other spaces that offer public Wi-Fi network connections to the Internet.

See also: Keep your information private online.

man with laptop at coffeeshop - Not all wi-fi networks are secure

Take precautions using Wi-Fi in public spaces. — Illustration by Alex Nabaum

With hacking tools that are easily available online, sometimes for free, scammers can create their own parallel wireless networks that mimic the name or look of a bona fide establishment's hot spot. So you think you're on the shop's network, but you're really on the hacker's.

Or you can be specifically targeted after you've connected to a shop's network with your laptop or smartphone. The hacker, perhaps someone sitting at a table just across the room, is able to intercept your transmissions and read them.

The crook knows what you may not, that many Wi-Fi networks are not secure, allowing for easy pickings of your personal data — email addresses, cellphone numbers and passwords. And if you bank or shop online while connected to these networks, your financial account numbers are at risk, too.

So if you use Wi-Fi in public spaces, follow these 10 tips to safeguard your information:

How to protect yourself

1. Set your laptop or smart phone so you have to manually select the Wi-Fi network. You may need to change the default setting.

2. Make sure you know the exact name of the establishment's Wi-Fi network and connect only to it. Don't be fooled by look-alikes.

3. Avoid any hot spot that your device lists as "unsecured." Keep in mind that even if a password is required, a hot spot can still be unsecured.

4. If your device shows the site as secured, pay attention to what kind of encryption it lists. WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) is an early system, dating from over a decade ago. If it's WEP, treat the network as not secure. WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) is better, and WPA2 is best of all.

5. If you send personal data over a Wi-Fi link, do so only to an encrypted website. You can tell a site is encrypted if you see the letters "https" (the "s" stands for "secure") at the beginning of its Web address. Also, look for a lock icon on the top or bottom of pages throughout the site.

6. Before using a public Wi-Fi network, install such software as Force-TLS and HTTPS-Every ­ where, which are free add-ons to the Firefox browser. They make sure you use encryption features available on websites you visit. Virtual private network software — some of it free, some not — can also add security.

7. As with your home computer, change your passwords frequently and make them hard to crack by including digits and symbols. Use different ones for different websites.

8. Keep your security software up to date and pay attention to on-screen warnings.

9. Turn off Wi-Fi when you're not using it.

10. If you can connect by laptop or smartphone, use the phone. It's generally harder to hack.

Also of interest: Online security for older Americans. >>

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.

Topic Alerts

You can get weekly email alerts on the topics below. Just click “Follow.”

Manage Alerts

Processing

Please wait...

progress bar, please wait

Tell Us WhatYou Think

Please leave your comment below.

Technology
Resources

Social Networking

Step-by-step instructions on how to use some of the Web's most popular networking sites. Go

 

How to Use Your PC

Guides covering everything from setting up your desktop, to getting the most out of Excel. Go

 

Protect Your Digital Life

Keep your computer secure, your web surfing safe, and your inbox spam free with these tips. Go

Discounts & Benefits

Geek Squad Computing

Members save on Geek Squad services with Geek Squad® Tech Support & Guidance for AARP® Members.

AARP Discounts on ADT Companion Services

Members get 20% off NEW installation and activation of ADT® Personal Emergency Response System.

AARP Discounts on Consumer Cellular Phones and Plans

Members save 5% on monthly service and usage charges with Consumer Cellular.

Member Benefits

Members receive exclusive member benefits & affect social change. Join Today

Being Social

Featured
Groups

computer questions and tips

Computer Questions & Tips

Pick up some handy how-tos from this savvy group of techies. Discuss

 

Freebies Group

Favorite Websites & Freebies

Share your top sites for interesting information, helpful resources — and free stuff! Discuss