Many people enjoy the public Wi-Fi commonly offered by coffee shops, hotels, restaurants, libraries, airports and other places. But few users realize that these sources don’t always secure their public Wi-Fi.
Fake Wi-Fi and unsecured Wi-Fi
What is fake Wi-Fi? Public Wi-Fi areas often attract thieves and hackers, who create fake access points to Wi-Fi to steal user information by either 1) redirecting them to fraudulent sites that ask for their personal information or 2) observing their online activity while they are using the faulty connection.1 Simply put, fake public Wi-Fi tricks users into thinking they have a safe and secure internet connection at places they’d expect to find it.
Unsecured Wi-Fi is not password protected, meaning you can access it without a unique password. Sometimes, unsecured Wi-Fi can be legitimate: a friend or company simply may not require a password for convenience sake, but this can provide opportunities for hackers to imitate legitimate Wi-Fi to commit fraud.2 Without a secured Wi-Fi connection, hackers may direct you to the Internet through their own computers, meaning they can monitor your Internet activity while you’re using their connection.
Secured and unsecured websites
These days, websites that handle sensitive information tend to be encrypted. This means that any sensitive information you enter into a site will be coded so that hackers have difficulty reading it. Being able to tell whether a site is encrypted is especially important when using public Wi-Fi.
How can you tell if a site is encrypted? The way sites transfer information involves HTTP (hypertext transfer protocol), which is a great way to transfer information across the web. HTTP, however, isn’t secure, which is why HTTPS, a more secure format, was invented (the “S” stands for “Secure”).
You can tell if a site uses HTTPS by checking the left-hand portion of your address bar:
All modern banks and commerce sites that handle sensitive information should utilize HTTPS. If a site doesn't use HTTPS, treat it with caution.
Using public Wi-Fi safely
- Do not provide sensitive personal information to access a public Wi-Fi network unless it’s secure
- Avoid accessing your online bank account while using public Wi-Fi. Especially when using the unsecured Wi-Fi, try not to use any password-protected sites, as these can give hackers access to personal information
- Keep your computer’s antivirus programs and firewall current and activated
- Change your passwords frequently
- When using unsecured Wi-Fi, if you must enter personal information, make sure that the site is encrypted
- Consider using a VPN (Virtual Private Network) to secure your information while using unsecured Wi-Fi. Modern Windows machines come with a VPN installed (search “VPN” in your search bar), and a VPN can be accessed on a Mac in “Network” in the “System Preferences.”