What should I avoid using free Wi-Fi?

Using free public Wi-Fi can seem very convenient, especially when you are out and about and need internet access. However, free Wi-Fi hotspots also come with risks that you should be aware of. Here are some tips on how to stay safe when using free public Wi-Fi.

The Risks of Using Free Public Wi-Fi

Free public Wi-Fi networks are often unsecure. That means your online activity and information may be more easily accessed by cybercriminals when you use these networks. Some of the main risks include:

  • Sniffing – Others on the network can view your online activity and intercept information like logins, passwords, and credit card details if you transmit them over the Wi-Fi.
  • Man-in-the-middle attacks – Hackers can insert themselves between you and the Wi-Fi connection to eavesdrop or alter communications.
  • Wi-Fi spoofing – Fake hotspots pretend to be legitimate to trick users into connecting and then steal their information.
  • Malware – Connecting to compromised hotspots makes it easier for malware to infect your device.

Because public Wi-Fi is open to everyone, it is difficult to know if a network is secure and legitimate. It is best to take precautions any time you use free public Wi-Fi.

Only Do Low-Risk Activities

To protect your information, only do activities on free Wi-Fi that don’t involve transmitting sensitive data. Safe activities include:

  • Checking social media
  • Reading news or entertainment sites
  • Looking up basic information

Avoid activities like:

  • Online shopping
  • Banking or financial transactions
  • Entering usernames or passwords
  • Accessing company networks or data

Only do these higher-risk tasks when on a trusted private network to avoid exposing confidential information.

Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN)

A VPN encrypts your internet connection and hides your online activity, even on public Wi-Fi. This makes it much harder for anyone else to view your information. Choose a reputable paid VPN provider rather than a free service – paid services typically offer stronger encryption and extra features.

When connected through a VPN, your data is secured and you can:

  • Safely access email and other accounts
  • Shop online or do banking
  • Browse more privately

Look for a VPN with robust encryption, a no logging policy, apps for all your devices, and good customer service in case you need help.

Turn Off File Sharing

File sharing allows other devices connected to the network to access folders and files on your computer. This gives cybercriminals an opportunity to steal your personal documents and information.

Temporarily disable file sharing in your device settings before connecting to public Wi-Fi. This prevents access to sensitive information stored on your device.

Use HTTPS Websites

Websites that use HTTPS encryption will have https:// at the start of the URL (for example, https://www.example.com). This protects your connection to that website from hackers.

If a website doesn’t use HTTPS, your connection is unencrypted. Any data you transmit, like usernames, passwords or files, could be intercepted by others on the network.

When using public Wi-Fi, stick to sites with HTTPS enabled whenever possible.

Turn Off Auto-Connect

Your device may be configured to automatically connect to Wi-Fi hotspots it recognizes. But an auto-connect could accidentally link you to a compromised network without your knowledge.

Turn off auto-connect settings on your devices. Manually select only known, trusted networks to connect to.

Use a Firewall

A firewall creates a barrier between your device and the public Wi-Fi network. This prevents unauthorized access to your computer or smartphone.

Enable your operating system’s built-in firewall before accessing any hotspot. You can also install anti-virus software with extra firewall protection.

No Sensitive Info on Public Computers

Public computers at hotels, cafes and libraries frequently have keylogging or other malware installed. This allows criminals to easily intercept everything you type.

Never enter passwords, credit card details or other sensitive information on any shared public computer. Also beware of shoulder surfers who may be spying on your screen.

Disable Wi-Fi Auto-Connect on Your Smartphone

Like computers, smartphones can be configured to automatically connect to recognized Wi-Fi networks. This could accidentally connect you to an unsecure hotspot.

Go into your device settings and turn off Auto-Join and Wi-Fi networking. Manually select only known, trusted hotspots to connect to.

Use Your Smartphone as a Hotspot

Rather than using open public Wi-Fi, you can create your own personal hotspot with your smartphone. Enable the mobile hotspot feature and connect your other devices like laptops to your phone’s cellular data connection instead.

This gives you a lot more control – you can password protect the network and limit usage as needed. Just beware of potential cellular data overages.

Update All Software

Before accessing public Wi-Fi, update your operating systems, browsers, apps and security tools to the latest versions. Updates frequently include critical security patches that close vulnerabilities.

Using outdated software makes you an easier target for Wi-Fi hacking attempts and malware infections.

Use Antivirus Protection

Install antivirus software on all your devices – smartphones, tablets and laptops. This identifies and blocks known malware threats.

Make sure to keep your antivirus applications set to automatically update. Also run regular system scans after using public Wi-Fi to check for malware.

Avoid Public Wi-Fi For Banking

Never access your bank account or other financial apps and sites when on public Wi-Fi. Doing so puts your account details, login credentials and any transactions at serious risk of hacking.

If you need to bank on the go, use your smartphone’s cellular data instead. Only log into financial accounts on trusted networks with proper encryption.

Don’t Use Public Wi-Fi for Email

Email services transmit your username, password and messages without encryption by default. Using email over public Wi-Fi means this sensitive information can easily be intercepted.

Ideally avoid accessing your email account completely while on public Wi-Fi. If you must check your email, enable SSL encryption in your email settings first.

Beware of Evil Twin Hotspots

Evil twin Wi-Fi hotspots impersonate legitimate ones to trick users into connecting. For example, an evil twin might use the hotspot name “Free Airport Wi-Fi” at an airport to lure users.

Don’t connect to anything unfamiliar even if it seems legitimate. Carefully check the hotspot name and consult any posted signs to identify the real service.

Use a Password Manager

A password manager app generates ultra-strong, randomized passwords for each of your accounts. It stores them securely behind one master passphrase.

Using a password manager means you don’t have to remember all your passwords. You can use very complicated passwords for every site and account for maximum protection of your data.

Don’t Stay Permanently Connected

Don’t set your devices to auto-reconnect to public Wi-Fi hotspots. And don’t remain connected to public Wi-Fi at all times just because it is there.

Only connect when you need internet access. Disconnect again as soon as you are finished using the hotspot to limit your exposure.

Use Your Device’s MAC Address Filter

You can set up a MAC (Media Access Control) address filter on your laptop or smartphone. This will block all devices except those with specified MAC addresses from connecting to your hotspot.

Enable MAC address filtering if you need to set up your own personal hotspot on the go. This way you limit access to just your recognized devices.

Turn Off Printer and File Sharing

Disable printer and file sharing in your device settings before connecting to public Wi-Fi. Hackers on the same network may be able to access your printer and files if these are left enabled.

Turn sharing back on after disconnecting from the Wi-Fi hotspot in order to keep printers and files locked down.

Use a Public VPN Service

If you don’t have access to your own VPN, look for a nearby public VPN connection offered officially by the local municipality or businesses.

Examples include SurfEasy VPN hotspots at Starbucks and various city and airport VPN services. These offer secure public Wi-Fi access through an encrypted connection.

Don’t Auto-Connect to Bluetooth

Like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth on your devices can be set to auto-connect when it detects previously paired devices nearby. Turn this off to prevent automatically linking with unverified devices.

Manually confirm connections and make sure you only pair your own recognized device. This prevents others from gaining Bluetooth access.

Use Caution with QR Codes and URLs

QR codes and shortened URLs are common ways to share connected content. But scammers can use them to send you to malicious sites to download malware or capture your information.

Don’t scan random QR codes you find posted in public. And carefully examine any shortened URL before clicking to see the full website address.

Keep Devices Physically Secure

Don’t leave your laptop, tablet or smartphone unattended, even briefly, when working in public using Wi-Fi. Keep all devices with you at all times.

Also be cautious of shoulder surfers spying on your screen or devices over your shoulder. Shield screens from unwanted viewing when using public hotspots.

Use Caution on Hotel Wi-Fi

Hotel Wi-Fi networks seem convenient and safe, but can still put your information at risk if they lack proper security. Hackers may even set up their own evil twin hotspots with the hotel’s name.

Verify the hotel Wi-Fi name before connecting. Better yet, use your cellular data or a VPN app while traveling to enhance security.

Don’t Use Public Computers for Email

Public devices at libraries, hotels and cafes frequently have keylogging malware installed. This tracks everything you type like usernames, passwords and emails.

Avoid accessing email accounts completely on any public machine. If you must briefly check your email, enable SSL encryption first for better protection.

Review Connected Wi-Fi Networks

Often your smartphone, tablet or computer will automatically reconnect to a previously used Wi-Fi network when in range again.

Periodically review your list of connected networks to make sure there are no unknown or suspicious hotspots. Remove any unfamiliar entries.

Use Your Cellular Network for Downloads

Large downloads over public Wi-Fi can be risky, as the extended connection time increases your vulnerability. Malware is also often hidden in downloads.

For any large downloads, use your cellular network instead. This provides greater security when transferring files from the internet.

Don’t Use Wi-Fi for Video Streaming

Video streaming uses a lot of bandwidth which can slow down public Wi-Fi for everyone connected. This poor performance makes it easier for hackers to intercept data.

Avoid steaming videos, shows or movies while on public networks. Stream over cellular data or wait until you are on a password-protected home network.

Summary of Steps to Follow

Here is a quick summary of the key tips to follow to stay safe on public Wi-Fi:

  • Only do low-risk activities like basic web browsing.
  • Never access financial accounts or share sensitive information.
  • Use a VPN to encrypt all connections.
  • Turn off file sharing andsharing.
  • Stick to HTTPS websites when possible.
  • Keep your devices physically secure.
  • Disable auto-connecting to networks and hotspots.
  • Watch out for fake evil twin Wi-Fi networks.

Conclusion

Public Wi-Fi is risky but it has advantages. Using free networks does come with the threat of hacking, identity theft, and malware.

However, by following key safety tips and using caution you can still use public Wi-Fi with greater peace of mind. Awareness and smart precautions will help secure your data and minimize the risks.

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