Today’s travelers have more options than ever when it comes to WiFi. Many hotels offer free WiFi to guests, and many airlines offer paid WiFi service so passengers can stay connected at any-thousand feet. WiFi is now available on 83 percent of U.S. airline seats, according to Routehappy®, a company that tracks onboard airline amenities.
But are these services secure, and could using them put your personal information at risk? Yes, experts say. Hackers can exploit the vulnerabilities in these networks to gain access to your data.
There are two kinds of public WiFi networks: secured and unsecured. You can connect to unsecured networks whenever you’re in range, and they don’t require a password or a login. A secured network requires a user to agree to legal terms, register an account or use a password before logging in. It may also come with a fee.
But paying for WiFi or entering a password doesn’t necessarily ensure better security. Last year, a USA Today columnist wrote about getting hacked while using paid, in-flight WiFi; a fellow passenger was able to read every e-mail the columnist sent and received.
A spokesman for Gogo® Inflight Internet – offered by many U.S. airlines – told that reporter, Steven Petrow, the service is “public” and “operates in the same ways as most open WiFi hotspots on the ground.” Earlier this year, however, Gogo said it would offer a “bug bounty program” and pay security researchers for finding system bugs, with an eye toward improving security.
In hotels, identity thieves can set up fake WiFi networks that look like the one offered by the hotel, hoping you’ll fall for their ruse. Even if you’re using the hotel network, you may still be at risk of so-called “man in the middle” or eavesdropping attacks, where a third party intercepts communications between two people.
One way to help better protect your information when using public WiFi is using a virtual private network (VPN) service. A number of personal VPNs are available for purchase online, but do some research and make sure the company is reputable. Tech publications like PCMag and CNET offer lists of the best VPNs and comparisons of the services.
Here are some other suggestions for public WiFi use from Norton™ Security and the Federal Trade Commission:
- Don’t allow your smartphone or computer to auto-connect to available networks. Keep those settings turned off when traveling or in unfamiliar places.
- Don’t access your bank accounts via public WiFi, as it could jeopardize your personal financial information. Even secured networks aren’t foolproof, so keep the risks in mind when deciding which accounts to access.
- Don’t shop online. Online shopping could leave your login information and especially your credit card information vulnerable.
- Don’t connect with any unsecured network — one that doesn’t require a password. At a hotel, make sure you are asked to enter some kind of password, such as your last name or room number, to access WiFi. If you aren’t sure of the right network, ask the front desk.
- Keep an eye on Bluetooth connectivity. Leaving Bluetooth on in public places can be a security risk, as a hacker can look for open Bluetooth signals to gain access to your devices. Turn off Bluetooth on your smartphone and other devices in unfamiliar places.
- Set up a computer firewall. In Windows, look on your control panel under “security” to turn on the firewall. On a Mac, look under System Preferences>Sharing.
- Update your virus protection. Enable it to run daily scans while you’re traveling.
- Disable file-sharing and avoid file-sharing sites.
- Only visit secure websites. Look for “HTTPS” in the URL. The “s” stands for secure.
- Do not use the same password on different websites.
- Log out of accounts when you’re finished using them.
The extra vigilance may seem cumbersome, but it’s worth it to help keep your personal information safe no matter where you may be.
The information contained in this blog post is designed to generally educate and inform visitors to the Equifax Finance Blog. The blog posts do not give, and should not be assumed to provide, personalized tax, investment, real estate, legal, retirement, credit, personal financial, or other professional advice. Before making any financial decision, you should always consult with the appropriate professionals who can explain your options, rights, and legal responsibilities, and advise you on any tax, legal, credit, or business implications that may result from those decisions. The views and opinions expressed by the authors of blog posts are their own views and may not be the views or opinions of Equifax, Inc. and/or its affiliates.