Wifi

How to use free Wi-Fi safely for banking, shopping and browsing

A woman walks past a WiFi-enabled phone booth in New York.

A woman walks past a WiFi-enabled phone booth in New York.  (REUTERS/Keith Bedford)

Public Wi-Fi is a convenient way to check Facebook, browse the Internet or do some online shopping on the go without putting a dent in your cellular data plan. (Use this free app to find Wi-Fi anywhere you go.) Unfortunately, if there are hackers on the same network, there’s a good chance they can snoop on what you're doing or even take over your accounts.

Aside from hackers, the government and Internet service providers also can monitor your connection to see where you go, and, if they want, what you do. If you aren't a fan of that, and few people are, there is a way you can keep these parties out of your business.

The state of Internet security

But before I talk about that, let's do a quick review of the security measure that's already in place: an encrypted connection. Any finance, medical or shopping site that's even a little security conscious is going to provide you with one.

Encryption scrambles your traffic so hackers can't get your passwords and other information. You can tell a site is providing encryption when the Web address in your browser starts with https://.

In addition to the types of sites I’ve already mentioned, Facebook, Google and other major tech sites have adopted always-on encryption as well. But not every site you encounter does, and some only provide partial encryption. That means they might not encrypt the connection until you log in, which gives hackers an opening to steal your password. Or they might encrypt only your login information and leave things like email messages exposed to snoops.

Fortunately, more sites are moving to full-time encryption. Netflix will enable it over the next year, and even news sites (the largest so far is The Washington Post) are turning it on. Mozilla, the developer of the Firefox browser, is even making plans to stop supporting unencrypted websites entirely.

But you don't have to wait for that level of security. You can fully encrypt your connection today and prevent hackers or anyone else from snooping on you.

VPN basics

To encrypt your connection, you can use a virtual private network. In the business world, VPNs let off-site employees create an encrypted connection with the company network so they can work safely.

Windows and Mac have VPN features built in just for this purpose, but they aren’t very helpful for the average home user or traveler because you need a network to connect to. That's where a third-party VPN service comes in handy.

A VPN service lets you create an encrypted connection with one of its servers, and you use that server to browse the Internet. Because the connection is encrypted through the server, the VPN can't see your traffic, either. OK, it's a bit more complicated than that behind the scenes, but that's the result.

To start, you need to choose a program or service that you’ll use. There are dozens that offer a mix of security features, privacy options, server locations and other considerations.

Note: If you're searching for VPNs, you'll see VPN services and "proxy" services. A proxy service can disguise your computer's identity, but it doesn't necessarily encrypt your connection. Always go with a VPN for security.

For the average user, it's important to make sure the VPN service has U.S.-based servers and that it doesn't keep logs of your activity. You also need to know how much bandwidth you can use per session or month. Paid services will require some personal information and payment information, of course, but you can find one that minimizes what it needs to know.

Some services will accept prepaid cards and alternative payments that are harder to trace back to you. But even if you give the service your information, it doesn’t matter much as long as it doesn't keep logs of what you do.

Windows, OS X and Android users can check out CyberGhost. This is a popular free service that has strong encryption, unlimited bandwidth and doesn't store logs. It also has paid plans that give you faster speed, remove ads, connect to more servers around the world, and let you use CyberGhost on the iPhone and iPad.

Hotspot Shield VPN is a good app for Apple and Android gadgets and has more than 300 million downloads. You get to choose your server location, and it also blocks viruses and phishing attempts before they get to your gadget. There also are Windows and Mac versions. Be aware that the free software has ads.

Using a VPN

Once you've installed a VPN, fire it up and let it establish a connection. You can then browse the Internet as you always do. The traffic will flow to your computer, tablet or smartphone over the encrypted connection from the VPN's server.

This means any unencrypted sites you visit will be safe from prying eyes, and encrypted sites will basically have double encryption. As a bonus, if you're at home, your Internet service provider will no longer be able to see what sites you're visiting. It will see only your connection to the VPN.

The sites you're visiting also won't know where you're coming from. They'll just see the connection from the VPN. That means the government will have a harder time tracking what you're doing as well.

Note: The government will have a harder time seeing your activity, but there will still be ways for it to find out what you're doing. So keep what you're doing legal.

I strongly recommend using a VPN when you're on public Wi-Fi. The VPN encryption should stop hackers on the same network from snooping on you. But even then, you shouldn't do anything too sensitive on public Wi-Fi, such as online banking. Save that for home on your secure Wi-Fi network, or use a cellular connection on the go. Even with cellular, you might want to use a VPN in case you wander in range of a government StingRay. Learn what StingRays are and why you want to avoid them.

More things to know

Using a VPN is a good way to increase your security, but it does have a cost. Though most VPN services claim otherwise, it can slow down your connection. That's because your traffic is making more stops between you and the site you're using. If you find that your browsing is sluggish, you can turn off the VPN while using sites that aren't critical.

You also could run into obstacles if your VPN hooks you up with a server in another country. Some online activities, like streaming video, are often region-locked. So if you find YouTube, Netflix or other sites refuse to play video because they say you aren't in the U.S., you'll need to adjust your VPN settings or find a provider with more U.S.-based servers.

Similarly, some sites you use regularly may say they don't recognize you. You may need to go through security procedures to prove you are who you say you are before you can log in.

While the VPN will hide your surfing from your ISP and the sites you're visiting, your computer, smartphone or tablet will still be recording your browsing history. If you don't want that recorded, you'll need to browse in private or incognito mode. Learn how to activate that in your browser.

A VPN is just about the connection between you and a website. If you choose to store personal information on a website, it can still be lost in a data breach. So, as always, be careful what sites you choose to trust with your information.

While a VPN encrypts the connection between you and its server, the connection between the VPN server and the site you're visiting isn't necessarily going to be secure. While the odds of a hacker breaking in at that point are minimal, it's still possible.

Always be sure to check your browser's address bar to make sure you see the https:// before sending any sensitive information to a website. If a site doesn't offer an encrypted connection for sensitive information, then you probably don't want to be using it, VPN or not.

On the Kim Komando Show, the nation's largest weekend radio talk show, Kim takes calls and dispenses advice on today's digital lifestyle, from smartphones and tablets to online privacy and data hacks. For her daily tips, free newsletters and more, visit her website at Komando.com. Kim also posts breaking tech news 24/7 at News.Komando.com.