Free Wi-Fi hotspots: What you need to know

The widespread use of Wi-Fi enabled mobile devices means that we can now keep in touch wherever we are and the demand for Wi-Fi access has led to the growth of free hotspots seemingly everywhere.

They may appear harmless, but free Wi-Fi hot spots come with a number of risks of which which most users, and even many providers, are unaware.

On a recent trip business trip I was in the airport lounge surrounded by number of people tapping away on their smartphones (and notebooks). Although a large proportion of them were probably using the free Wi-Fi service, chances are most of them were completely unaware of the potential security risks.

It’s now commonplace to find free Wi-Fi hotspots at cafes, shopping malls, hotels and airports. Using Wi-Fi instead of the mobile data network allows users to keep costs low and avoid high roaming charges when overseas (for example) but it’s important to be aware of the downsides and take steps to protect yourself if you want to stay secure while using them.

What are the dangers of using free Wi-Fi hotspots?

When you log on to a free Wi-Fi hotspot you don’t know how secure it is. It may appear safe but unless it has the right hardware and is installed by someone who knows what they’re doing you could be vulnerable.

For example, it’s easy for a computer logged onto the same Wi-Fi network as you, could use some basic hacking tools to and itself up to pretend it is the main router so all traffic will then flow through their computer and then to and main router and back. Then, with another simple packet sniffing tool, they could sniff out what websites you’re looking at, unencrypted passwords and much more.

As well as the risk of unauthorised activity, the information gathered from your computer could be used for identity theft and fraud. This is a growing problem for many businesses and individuals and can have devastating consequences.

How can I stay safe on Wi-Fi?

If you need to use the Internet while you are on the move there are a few things you can do to protect yourself and the integrity of your information.

Here are the top three steps you can take to reduce the risks of using Wi-Fi hotspots.

Don’t use free Wi-Fi hotspots unless completely necessary. Either use the mobile network to access the Internet or purchase a portable secure mobile Internet service you can use (I personally use the Telstra 4G Wi-Fi Hotspot).

Use a secure VPN service. VPN stands for Virtual Private Network and a VPN service encrypts the information going from your computer to the network so that it can’t be accessed by these third party applications. This provides a secure tunnel for surfing the Internet and keeps your personal information safe. Just ensure the VPN Service is reputable as all your traffic will be going through them and they could have the same motive as a hacker and try to steal your data.

If you do use free Wi-Fi hotspots don’t use them for anything important like online banking. Stick to harmless surfing and avoid any site where a password is required.

Think carefully the next time you are tempted to use a free Wi-Fi hotspot. Unless the person installing the network has sound IT knowledge your device and information could be vulnerable. Don’t put your personal information at risk, always be cautious about using free Wi-Fi and take steps to protect yourself.

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