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BBB Tip of the Week: Protect against hackers using public Wi-Fi networks

Whenever I give speeches, I talk about the importance of regularly checking your credit report and financial accounts. In the same breath, I remind people not to check these websites at coffee shops or over any other free Wi-Fi connection. Any sort of personal information like usernames, passwords, Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, etc., should never be entered on an unsecure network.

Once in a while, people ask, “Why?” Or, they will agree, but not fully understand what could happen if you make an exception “just this once.” For instance, it’s tempting to find any way to get online for free when you’re stuck on long layovers at airports or staying for a few nights at a hotel. Better Business Bureau warns that more and more scammers are trying to steal personal information by creating unsecured networks you can connect to for free.

Although hackers can, and have, set up fake Wi-Fi connections in a number of venues, usually they will target consumers at airports or hotels. When searching for connections, you may see a network available that could be simply named “Free Wi-Fi.” Thinking the establishment offers Wi-Fi, you log on. Unfortunately, the network may actually be an “ad hoc” network, or a peer-to-peer connection.

You will be able to surf the internet, but you’re doing it through the hacker’s computer. And the whole time, the hacker is stealing information like passwords, credit card and bank account numbers and Social Security numbers. If the laptop is set to share files, the hacker could even steal whole documents from your computer.

BBB recommends the following tips when connecting to public Wi-Fi networks:

Connect securely. Never connect to an unfamiliar wireless network – even if the name sounds genuine. A hacker can change the name of his network to anything he wants, including the name of the legitimate internet connection offered by an airport.

Disable automatic connections. Make sure your computer is not set up to automatically connect to any wireless networks within your range. Otherwise, your computer could automatically connect to the hacker’s network without your knowledge.

Turn off file sharing. When you are on the road, this prevents hackers from stealing sensitive data from your computer.

Turn off the Wi-Fi hotspot on your device. This protects your personal information so others cannot sign onto your network.

Create a Virtual Private Network. A VPN establishes a private network across the public network, which prevents a hacker from intercepting your data. If you do turn on a Wi-Fi hotspot feature, you need a VPN to prevent other people from accessing the internet via your mobile device.