Wi-Fi hotspots are a blessing for travelers and anyone who just wants to do a little Web surfing while having lunch or coffee in a shop. Connecting is convenient, and it helps users avoid going over their cellular data limits and getting socked with overage fees.
If you're not careful about using free public Wi-Fi, however, strangers can snoop on your email and social network conversations. Worse, if you're too casual about mobile banking or shopping, you could end up with a hacked bank account or credit card account.
Hackers with routers and readily available software set up rogue hot spots for spying and serving you fake websites. You and your tablet will think you're connecting to the coffee shop's Wi-Fi, but you've fallen into a trap.
Despite the risks, it's easy to protect yourself and thwart the bad guys. Follow these tips to surf more safely.
Turn off sharing
If you use a laptop, you might have it set to share files and folders with other computers at work or home. You don't want these settings on when you're using a public network.
Windows Vista, 7 and 8, make it simple to automate your sharing settings. When connecting to a public hotspot for the first time, Windows asks for a location type. Make sure you set it to "public." This will automatically modify sharing settings for maximum safety.
On a Mac, go to System Preferences>>Sharing and make sure all the sharing boxes are unchecked. You'll have to turn on the controls again when you want to file share on your home or work network.
Don't automatically connect to Wi-Fi networks
It's handy when your smartphone, tablet and laptop automatically connect to your home and work networks, but that can lead to trouble when you're out and about.
Hackers often give their rogue hotspots generic names such as Coffee Shop, Linksys or AT&T Wireless. You want to be certain you are connecting to the router of the business.
Tweak your gadgets' settings so you have to manually join networks in public. Then verify with a store employee that you are connecting to the correct network.
You might think that an establishment with password-protected Wi-Fi is safer, but that's not the case. Passwords are good for keeping people out of your home network, but for public networks, anyone can join. Once a hacker is on, your gadgets are accessible.
By the way, your home Wi-Fi is encrypted, right? If not, you're grounded from going out in public until you lock it down! I have detailed instructions here.
Be smart about mobile banking and shopping
It's best to wait until you're at home to do any online banking or shopping. If you must make an emergency balance transfer or an immediate purchase to save a significant amount of money, it's safer to use a cellular connection instead of Wi-Fi. Just be careful to stay under your data limit.
When banking, use your institution's official app and sign up for any extra security that your bank offers. Bank of America's SafePass program, for example, sends a text message with a 6-digit code to authorize a transaction. The code expires as soon as you use it.
Even if you're on public Wi-Fi, most sensitive sites use SSL encryption to scramble the information that passes between your gadget and the Web server. You'll see HTTPS and a padlock icon in your browser's address bar instead of HTTP.
You have to stay vigilant, though. Encryption kicks in at different stages on different sites. If a log-in page isn't encrypted, a hacker could intercept your information with little trouble.
Make sure your email program, Facebook and Twitter accounts are also configured to take advantage of secure HTTPS browsing. The browser add-on HTTPS Everywhere does it for you automatically.
Use security software
Your laptop should have the same anti-virus, anti-spyware, and firewall protection that your home computer does. The firewall is particularly important when on a public network. Its entire purpose is to keep snoops out of your system. You can find excellent free security software, including firewalls, at my Security Center.
Protect your mobile gadgets with apps such as Lookout Mobile Security. They’ll warn you when you're on an unsecured Wi-Fi network, detect security flaws in your other apps and prevent you from clicking on fraudulent links.
Look over your shoulder
Not all dangers in the digital world are high-tech. While you're watching the world go by in a busy airport lounge, a snoop could be literally looking over your shoulder with the hope that you might reveal a username, password or credit card number.
It's called shoulder surfing, and it still works.
Preventing this is equally low-tech and effective. Just exercise a little healthy paranoia!
Copyright 2013, WestStar Multimedia Entertainment. All rights reserved.
Kim Komando hosts the nation's largest talk radio show about consumer electronics, computers and the Internet. To get the podcast, watch the show or find the station nearest you, visit: http://www.komando.com/listen. To subscribe to Kim's free email newsletters, sign-up at: http://www.komando.com/newsletters.