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Stay Safe On Public Wi-Fi With These Important Tips

Sometimes, all you need is the air that you breathe and some Wi-Fi.

public wi-fi
rawpixel / Pixabay

The benefits of staying permanently connected far outweigh the nagging feeling that maybe you should just sit down with some coffee and watch the world go by. Right? Well anyway, Wi-Fi feels good, so none but the most electromagnetically hypersensitive of us are about to turn our nose up at it any time soon.

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Unfortunately, like most good things in life, there are risks involved. In particular, because the internet is a primary conduit for data and financial transactions, there are a whole lot of villains out there trying to tap it. And one of the easiest ways to do so is by hacking public Wi-Fi.

Despite this, nearly nine in ten of us neglect to take precautions when dialing up that public network. And nearly four in ten apps leave your data unprotected, too.

You’re not about to quit Wi-Fi, are you? So let’s take a look at some habits you can form to keep yourself safe.

Use VPN

The words Virtual Private Network sound pretty alien to the average internet user who has never tried one.

But VPN’s are actually pretty simple. In layman’s terms, they route all your internet traffic through a ‘third party’ server, converting your data into a code that hackers can’t access.

It’s important to install a decent one such as Nord or ExpressVPN on your devices, and it may cost a few dollars a month. But it’s worth it. Once you have it on your laptop or device, you just need to activate it in your settings before you log in to a Wi-Fi network.

You can even use it, when travelling abroad, to ‘pretend’ you’re back in the States, and access location-specific websites that you need to use on the go.

Switch Off File-Sharing, Auto-Connectivity, And Bluetooth

File sharing between computers when you’re in the office or at home can be super-useful. But it’s easy to forget that you’ve activated this option when you’re out and about. On Windows or whatever Mac OS you’re using, it’s straightforward to go into your settings and switch file sharing off – in fact, it’s best to leave it off by default unless it’s something you use regularly.

Another default to switch off is your auto-connectivity. It can seem like a great convenience to have your device automatically latch on to any open network that you pass, especially if you’re travelling in a strange town and relying on Google Maps to get you from place to place.

Unfortunately, malign forces are aware of this security vulnerability, and they may be waiting for unwitting Wi-Fi users to auto-connect to networks that they really have no use for. You need to scrutinize any new Wi-Fi network closely before you agree to connect.

Bluetooth is another vulnerability, since hackers can exploit open Bluetooth signals to get access to your device. Unfortunately, as certain manufacturers do away with the ports and physical connections that we need to connect our peripherals to our devices (we’re looking at you, Tim Apple!), Bluetooth becomes more and more essential. If you can avoid using it, switch it off.

Change Your Passwords

Passwords are only as safe as the effort you make with them. Come up with over-simple passwords, or use the same one for every service that you use, or worse – do both! – and you leave yourself seriously compromised. Hackers know how to guess passwords. Especially if they’ve found access to other data of yours. And if you have the same password across multiple services, they only need to crack one password to get your data from every service you use and from your hard drive.

In fact, it’s best to back up your devices at home, and to avoid using data-sensitive services such as online banking when using public Wi-Fi.

Be Choosy

Not all public Wi-Fi is equal. In fact, a quarter of public Wi-Fi spots use zero encryption, leaving you totally vulnerable to having your data intercepted mid-transfer. Try to use the networks offered by familiar brands when in places with lots of choices, such as airports, and stick to networks that require passwords or other obstacles to gain entry. You can also check what kind of encryption each network uses through your settings or preferences. WEP and WPA are okay, but WPA2 is ideal. Hackers will generally target the less protected ones.

But do be wary of ‘reliable’ names, too. Hackers may spoof known brands to trick people into signing in. It’s always worth checking at the counter to make sure you’re choosing a legitimate hotspot.

When You Leave

It doesn’t end when you finish surfing. Public Wi-Fi networks can change in your absence, so it’s worth signing out of a network even if it’s at a location you trust, so that your device doesn’t automatically reconnect next time you pass by. You should also sign out of apps and websites, since your device creates ‘cookies’ to keep you logged-in – and these cookies can be hijacked by hackers and used to access your data even once you’ve left.

Nobody’s about to quit using public Wi-Fi unless they believe it affects their health. So instead it’s important to maximize the virtual hygiene of your devices. Make a note of the Wi-Fi security tips in this visual guide to public safety online, and you drastically reduce the chances of becoming a victim.

Stay Safe On Public Wi-Fi With These Top Tips