How safe is free public Wi-Fi?

Don't Waste Your Money

Nearly 70,000 businesses from coffeehouses to hotels and airports now offer free public Internet connections, or Wi-Fi hotspots.

But how safe is it to go online a hotspot?

Our partners at Consumer Reports Magazine warn you need to be careful.

Hackers set up fake hotspots

"You're actually connecting into a computer network with strangers. And a hacker can get at personal information that you provide, or even trick you into connecting to a fake hotspot,” said Consumer Reports engineer Dean Gallea.

To illustrate, Gallea parked near a Starbucks with his laptop. Outside, his colleague was logging on. A phony "Starbucks Free" connection that Gallea created came up at the top of the list.

"She chose my fake hotspot instead of the real one, so she'll be seeing a fake webpage I set up and I'll be able to see any personal information she types in,” Gallea said.

Consumer Reports said before logging on to public Wi-Fi, be sure to confirm the name of the wireless network connection.

In this case, it wasn't Starbucks. It was AT&T Wi-Fi down the list. But if you are sitting in a Starbucks, it's easy to log on to a Starbucks hotspot page, even if it is not the real thing.

Look for "https" in address bar

To be safe, don't send personal information like a credit-card number or bank account login password unless you see the letters "https" in the address bar and not simply "http." The "s" means the data leaving your computer is sent securely.

"But your best protection when you're connected to a public hotspot is just not to send any personal information at all,” Gallea said.

Consumer Reports said there's another important step to take to keep your information secure at public hotspots. You should disable your laptop's file and printer sharing features. This will prevent people on the wireless network from gaining access to your personal documents. Check your computer's Help menu to find out how to do this.

The Bottom Line

Confused by file sharing? The simplest thing is to use free Wi-Fi hotspots for basic web surfing only.

Leave the bank account login to your home computer, so you stay safe and don't waste your money.


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