Tens of thousands of airports, hotels, coffee shops and other places now provide computer access to high-frequency wireless networks so you can check your e-mail or do online banking or shopping while you’re on the road.
But officials warn that many of the nation’s 68,000 Wi-Fi “hot spots” are a hotbed for computer hackers, who sit nearby and use their own laptops to eavesdrop on yours.
Wi-Fi, which stands for “wireless fidelity,” is the technology used in computer networks, mobile phones and video games that doesn’t require plugs, cables or other “hard” connections. Because these hot spots sometimes use unsecured networks, a hacker can place himself where the signal is strongest and using off-the-shelf equipment, or even a metal kitchen strainer to boost signal power, can hijack the host network.
With a few clicks on his keyboard, he can rename the network and get hot spot visitors to log on to it, assuming it’s the network of the host hotel or coffee shop. The danger: Once you enter his network, the hacker can get your user ID, passwords and, if you’re doing online shopping or banking, your credit card or bank account information. Donna Peterson, a supervisory special agent with the FBI’s Cyber Division, pointed out in a press advisory that “another thing to remember is that the connection between your laptop and the attacker’s laptop runs both ways: While he’s taking info from you, you may be unknowingly downloading viruses, worms and other malware from him.”
To protect yourself:
- Always check with the host establishment to confirm the network name and log-in appearance to ensure you’re not logging on to a hacker’s.
- Never make financial transactions at a Wi-Fi hotspot.
- Make sure that your laptop is properly secured with up-to-date antivirus and antispyware software and that it has current firewalls.
- Change the default setting of your laptop so you have to manually select the Wi-Fi network to which you’re connecting.
- Download free encryption software when using Wi-Fi networks. Check the information at PC World.
- Turn off your laptop’s Wi-Fi capabilities when you’re not using them.
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life (AARP Books/Sterling).