Connecting to public networks is easy but staying safe on these networks is not easy as we think! Here are some tips to stay safe on public hotspots.

By Susan Alexandra, Contributing Writer

Public Wi-Fi is a free commodity shared by an organization for the benefit of its clients. Most public Wi-Fi is not password protected, however, and some public Wi-Fi can also be accessed without authorized consent.

Increasingly available, free public Wi-Fi can be accessed in shopping malls, entertainment centers, restaurants, cafes, libraries, universities, hospitals, airports, airplanes, trains and more.

Whether in your home-town or visiting a new place, you can surf the internet, download content, and spend endless time on social media without paying a single penny.

Is It Safe to Connect to Public Wi-Fi?

Free public Wi-Fi is appealing, but it also comes with significant risk and is not safe. As a free service, it can be used by anyone, including hackers, predators, spies, fraudsters, and all sorts of cybercriminals – so you never know who is sharing the public Wi-Fi connection with you and what their intentions are.

Using public Wi-Fi exposes all your online activities to spying and snooping. There is no data privacy or security whether it’s your personal details like photographs, bank accounts, and social media connections or business-related information like emails and business files. A hacker armed with a little skill and knowledge can see what you are doing, which websites you visit and with whom you are connected.

Hacking your passwords is much easier for cybercriminals when you are connected via public Wi-Fi, putting the security of your accounts at risk – from social media account credentials to email account logins, bank account information and more. Once your account password is breached, a hacker can lock you out of your accounts and utilize them for fraudulent or illegal purposes.

Apart from your online activities, public Wi-Fi also makes your offline data and device security vulnerable. It’s easier for predators to get access to the offline data on your device while you are connected via public Wi-Fi with malware. This malware can hijack your device and access all the data on it. Viruses can even destroy the internal system of your device and you can lose all your crucial data.

Hackers and predators can also trace your location when you are connected to public Wi-Fi and gather information regarding your locations, including information on your family members. This information can, for those with malicious intentions, be used to cause physical or material harm to you or your loved ones.

Clearly, many potential risks come with using public Wi-Fi – many of which are capable of causing a prodigious amount of damage. Still, does that mean we should avoid using public Wi-Fi completely?

Staying Safe on Public Wi-Fi

Public Wi-Fi has rapidly become a commodity and sometimes it is hard to resist the temptation to briefly use it in a pinch. After all, it’s free and enormously convenient. There are no guarantees for staying safe while connected online, but there are a variety of ways to enhance your online security and reduce your risk of being hacked when using public Wi-Fi.

  1. Virtual Private Network (VPN)

A VPN or Virtual Private Network is the safest way of connecting to the internet. It provides access to servers located around the world and allows you to establish a secure connection from these remote servers. As a result, you can connect from a server in another country while being physically present in another location. A VPN allows your computer’s IP address to be hidden so your physical location cannot be determined, which helps eliminate security concerns related to location tracking and identity theft.

A VPN also provides an encrypted tunnel for all your online activities. All the data sent and received through the VPN is encoded, so nobody can see what you are doing online. This removes opportunities for spying, snooping, and third-party interferences on your activity so you can safely enjoy the perks of public Wi-Fi without worrying about prying eyes.

There are a number of free and paid VPN solutions available. Free VPNs reduce the risks associated with public Wi-Fi, however, they also have security limitations. For this reason, it’s much better to invest in a paid VPN service to ensure maximum protection. Study the tariffs of ProtonVPN and you’ll see how cheap VPN providers might be.

  1. Password Protected Public Wi-Fi

Most public Wi-Fi is not password protected, however, there are a few businesses that offer password-secured Wi-Fi. These businesses provide you with a password on request and are safer than using open public Wi-Fi.

There are two benefits of password-secured Wi-Fi. First, the password is provided only on request and there are a limited number of users connected to the wireless portal, reducing the chances of cybercriminals and predators scanning for hacking opportunities. Second, it’s not unusual for cybercriminals to set up fake public Wi-Fi portals and deploy them in busy areas to lure users into thinking they are the real thing. The names of these fake wireless portals are typically very similar to legitimate networks in the vicinity, for example, “Free Starbucks Wi-Fi” alongside Starbucks Wi-Fi. Criminals use these fake wireless portals to scoop up the personal data of people who are fooled into using them. Fake portals aren’t password-protected, however, so if you have the option of using password-protected Wi-Fi there is much less chance of falling prey to a fake public hotspot.

  1. Turn Off Wi-Fi

Many people like to set their devices to auto-connect to Wi-Fi so they can automatically connect to a network as soon as they are in range. This practice is safe when at home or in the workplace and the connections are secure, but it can make your device vulnerable if you are in public places.

There are several malicious and fake public Wi-Fi hotspots operated for the sole purpose of hacking and hi-jacking data. If your device automatically connects to one of these networks there is a high probability your device will be infected with malware designed to steal online and offline data. Turning the Wi-Fi auto-connect functionality off when you are in public places can help protect your device and data.

  1. Anti-Virus

There are loads of viruses that can attack your device when you click on malicious links. These links are often disguised masquerading as a system upgrade, for instance, and are not easy to detect. Being cautious about the links you click on can help keep your device safe, but when you are connected to public Wi-Fi you are at increased risk of malware. Alarmingly, even a single device on a Wi-Fi connection that contains malware can automatically infect all the other devices that also connect to the network.

Anti-virus is essential to protect your devices and keep them safe from malware and viruses. AV software will notify you about invading malware and block it from accessing your device, and alert you about suspicious links as well as any other unusual activity within your device. Installing and actively using AV software dramatically reduces security threats to your devices and data.

  1. Safe Browsing

Additional diligence is imperative while browsing and using public Wi-Fi. Never use online banking or enter any kind of password while on public Wi-Fi unless you are actively using a VPN which hides and encrypts your data. The same goes for sharing personal information and photographs.

To ensure maximum online security when using a public hotspot, visit only SSL secured sites. SSL is a standard security technology for establishing an encrypted link between a web server and a browser. These sites are marked with HTTPS and have a padlock symbol in the address bar to symbolize security, which means data is encrypted on the site. The padlock symbol is typically found on shopping sites and other websites where payment transactions are made.

Remembering all of these points can help protect you from many security issues you may encounter when using public Wi-Fi. For maximum online safety, avoid using public Wi-Fi as much as possible.

About the Author

Susan Alexandra is an independent contributing author to Cyber Defense Magazine, SecurityToday, and Tripwire. She is a small business owner, traveler, and investor in cryptocurrencies.