How to Prevent Identity and Data Theft on Public WiFi

It can be hard to say no to free Wi-Fi. Cafe hotspots are a great way to get work done outside the office and airport hotspots are indispensable during long layovers. For all its benefits, though, public Wi-Fi is rife with risks, especially data and identity theft.

Since it’s hard to stay disconnected in current society, your best option is usually to find a compromise: taking measures to secure your data while enjoying the benefits of public Wi-Fi. So if you find yourself connecting to a public signal, whether out of necessity or habit, here are a few ways to keep your data safe:

Choose Your Hotspot Wisely

Not all public hotspots are set up equally. Networks that use WPA or WPA2 passwords (i.e. passwords you enter when connecting to the hotspot) are your ideal choices. Networks that don’t use passwords are almost definitely unsecured and those that use login portals are a mixed bag: they restrict the users on the network, but there could be devils lurking in the details of their terms of use.

It’s also important to be careful of rogue hotspots: networks that criminals use to impersonate a nearby establishment’s public network. If you’re accessing the Wi-Fi of a store, restaurant, or other establishment, be sure to ask an employee there which their official public networks are.

public wifi theft

Use Secure Programs and Sites

In addition to the protection that may or may not be provided by the network itself, you have to consider the security of the programs you use and the sites you access.

If you’re using a browser to access the internet, you should access only sites using an encrypted connection.There are a few common indicators for this, all of which you can find in the address bar:

  • The closed padlock icon
  • The word “Secure” before the URL
  • “https://” at the start of the url (instead of simply “http://”)

Website encryption is especially important if you’re submitting any information to a site or performing a transaction. While most websites are shifting toward secured pages across the board, there are still a few sites that only use this protection for login pages—so be sure to regularly check the address bar for that https.

Security is a bit tricker with non-browser applications.  Mobile apps don’t have a visible indicator like https and researchers have found that many apps don’t encrypt information properly. If you plan to use a mobile app to conduct submit data or transact, use a secure wireless network. If for some reason you must transact over an unsecured network, use service provider’s mobile website, instead of their app; this way you can check for the https at the start of their address.

Use a VPN

To ensure data encryption, it’s best to use a virtual private network (VPN). VPNs allow you to access the internet through a remote server, encrypting the data that goes into and comes out of your device. This effectively changes your IP address and protects it from any unwanted surveillance from other parties on the network. Most VPN services allow you to regularly change your VPN IP address, making it even more difficult for third parties to track your activities.

Of course, you should note that even with all these precautions, there may be brief moments when your device is left unguarded on public Wi-Fi. So as long as you’re on a public network, avoid any activities that would put your device or any of your confidential information at risk.

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About the Author: Shameem

I am Shameem, Software Engineer, Web Addicted, Living in Chennai, India.

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