How to stay safe on public Wi-Fi

October 9, 2020

Learn how you can avoid hackers and stay safe on public Wi-Fi

A man in a coffee shop staying safe on public Wi-Fi

If you've visited a hotel, airport, or, of course, a coffee shop in the last decade, you've probably seen signs or received cards with "FREE WI-FI" information. The spread of public Wi-Fi in recent years has made the internet more accessible than ever and for the most part, that's a good thing! But wherever you find the internet, you're sure to find hackers and cybercriminals lurking in the digital shadows. That's why it's important to take steps to protect yourself and your data. Fortunately, it's easier than you might think, so read on and learn how to stay safe on public Wi-Fi! 

Is it safe to use public wifi?

When it comes to the internet, no place is ever 100% safe; some places are very safe, and some are not safe at all. That having been said, when it comes to public Wi-Fi networks, most internet security experts agree that they fall into the latter category. 

In general, there are two types of public Wi-Fi networks in terms of their relative safety: secure and unsecure. This simply refers to whether or not a network is password protected. Networks without a password should be avoided at all costs, but even those with passwords should be met with caution. 

But before we dive into how you can safely navigate public internet access points, let's take a look at a few of the dangers associated with Wi-Fi out in the wild. 

Hackers on the network

First and foremost, you have to think about who else is on the same network. Most of the time, they are simply other patrons of your favorite cafe. However, because these networks are so easy to gain access to, they are often hotspots for hackers and cybercriminals. 

In other words, if you are connected to a network in public, hackers can be, too. Once on the network, they have a variety of tools and methods they can use to gain access to your sensitive information.

It isn't secure

As previously mentioned, networks without passwords are like a rowdy saloon in the wild west of the internet; everyone can gain access, and they are often a target for would-be hackers. 

But even if a store has a secure network, passwords are only useful if they are at least somewhat secret. If your cafe has the Wi-Fi password written on a chalkboard right inside the store, it's not really doing a lot to keep people out. Even if the shop only gives out passwords to people who make a purchase, they probably don't change the password that frequently, if ever.

Fake networks

What was the name of the store's network, again? Was it "COFFEEWIFI" or "C0FFEEWIFI?" If it took you a second to spot the difference, that's exactly the point. Many hackers will set up a small router in a well-known shop with public Wi-Fi and create a network with a similar name.

The hope is that you don't notice the difference and you log onto their network where they make the rules and can intercept your data. As you can imagine, this gives them all sorts of access and allows them to not only see what information you get from the internet, but the information you give to it. 

Tips for using public wifi safely 

So now we've discussed a few of the reasons that you should approach public Wi-Fi with caution. While the safest thing to do is simply avoid public Wi-Fi of any kind, that is not always a practical solution. Sometimes we absolutely have to check an email, or otherwise log on to the internet, and sometimes the internet at a coffee shop is the only option we have.  

If you find yourself in such a position, there are a number of tactics you can use to make sure that your time online is as safe as possible. 

Know your network

As mentioned in the section above, sometimes hackers set up fake networks to try and lure you in. While this can be tricky, you can often avoid falling victim to this tactic by simply taking a moment to verify that you're about to connect to the correct network. 

Before you log on, take a look at the other available networks. Do some of them look strangely similar? If so, speak to the owner or a clerk and make sure you know exactly how their network is named. If it does look like there is someone trying to trick people, you could help others by bringing it to the owner's attention, too. 

Turn of sharing options

Networks aren't just useful for accessing the internet - they're also great for quickly sharing files. When you're at home or on a trusted, secure network, this is a fantastic feature to have. However, on public Wi-Fi, having open doors for sharing can be an invitation to hackers. 

Depending on what operating system your computer uses (Windows or Mac), you will likely have different settings for sharing options. If you have a Mac, go into your settings and turn off AirDrop. You can also navigate to your system preferences and turn off file sharing by unchecking the boxes in the "Sharing" section.  

For Windows machines, you can change your file sharing settings by opening the Control Panel and navigating to the Network and Sharing center. 

Use a VPN

Using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) while on public Wi-Fi can be a great way to provide yourself with an extra layer of protection. Simply put, VPN is a way to route your computer, smartphone, or tablet's network connection through an alternate server before connecting to an internet site or service. Usually, this new connection is protected by encryption.

While a VPN can't make you impervious to cyber attacks, they are powerful tools that make it very difficult for a hacker to steal your information while you're on public Wi-Fi. 

Use sites that use HTTPS

Another great way to protect your data while using public Wi-Fi is to restrict your browsing to sites that use HTTPS. To determine whether or not a site uses HTTPS, simply look for "HTTPS" at the beginning of the web address in the address bar of your browser. 

Websites that use HTTPS utilize encryption to protect data that is transmitted to and from the website's server. This makes it much more difficult for a hacker to spy on your activity and steal your data. 

Keep your firewall up

Like many of the solutions we've discussed, a firewall isn't 100% impervious to attack. However, if you're using public Wi-Fi, it's an easy way to offer an extra wall of protection and can make it much more difficult for external threats to gain access to your computer. 

If you have a Windows machine, you can turn your firewall on by opening your Windows Security settings and navigating to the Firewall and network protection section. 

If you have a Mac, you can turn the firewall on by opening System Preferences, selecting "Security and Privacy" and navigating to the "Firewall" tab. 

Other safety considerations

In addition to the security measures listed above, there are a number of simple tricks you can use to make sure you are as safe as possible when using public Wi-Fi. 

Avoid accessing sensitive information. If at all possible, avoid logging on to websites that have sensitive personal information, like credit card sites and bank accounts. You may also think twice about navigating to sites that require your password input in general. 

Avoid shopping online. Because hackers often place themselves in a position to intercept data, online shopping can be particularly dangerous on public Wi-Fi. To avoid credit card theft and fraud, do your best to do your shopping from the safety of your home.

Don't leave your laptop unattended. While hackers take advantage of weaknesses in the digital world, that doesn't mean there aren't ways for them to steal information in the physical world. It only takes a few seconds for someone to take a picture of sensitive information on your computer screen, or upload malicious software onto your laptop through a USB, so never leave your device unattended in a public place. 

Turn off automatic network connections. Many laptops, tablets, smartphones, and other devices will look for and automatically connect to open or familiar networks. Hackers can use this to their advantage, so it's best to keep it off when you're in public. 

Turn off bluetooth. Bluetooth is an incredibly handy way to wirelessly connect devices to one another and share files. However, many times bluetooth connections aren't very secure, and could be used to steal data or upload malicious software to your device. When you're in a public place, it may be a good idea to turn it off. 

Consider using your phone as a temporary hotspot. Rather than using public Wi-Fi, consider using your smartphone as a temporary hotspot. These days, most phones have the ability to turn themselves into a router, connecting you to the internet using the 4G LTE network. Furthermore, devices with this option have secure password settings enabled by default. Of course, many plans have data caps, but for a short-term solution, it is worth consideration. 

Several people at a coffee shop staying safe on public Wi-Fi

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Read more: These tips can help you stay safe on public Wi-Fi, but how can you keep your kids safe when they're online at home? Read our blog for more information!

by Geoff Ullrich

About the Author

Geoff Ullrich is a writer and Content Marketing Strategist at Germania Insurance.

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