For years, consumers have been warned about connecting over public WiFi, like the connections found in hotels, coffee shops, and even retail stores. Summer travelers need to be particularly on guard because of a variation on public WiFi hacks that means practically anyone can spy on your online activity.
How? By simply creating a new WiFi connection with the name of your hotel or resort, fraudsters try to trick you into connecting to an unsecured, visible network.
Imagine that you're staying at the Hacienda Hotel and Resort. Your hotel's legitimate WiFi for patrons is called "Hacienda Guest." That's easy enough to verify because it may have been listed on your receipt or the in-room placard. But what about "Hacienda Guest"? Or "Hacienda Resort Guest"? Can those connections be trusted?
Just as consumers like to come up with quirky names for their own home WiFi connections—like "FBI Surveillance Van" or "Drop It Like It's Hotspot"—hackers can set up their own WiFi within range of the hotel's guests and name it anything they want. By incorporating the hotel's name, the word "guest," or any other likely term, users inadvertently connect to the unsecured network.
From there, the owner of the connection can literally watch everything you do in real-time, including entering your credit card information, your account passwords, account login credentials, and more.
How to Protect Your Personal Information
In order to fight back against WiFi spies, it's important to find out what the genuine connections are where you'll be staying. Check with the front desk or consult the information card in your room. But even using the appropriate free WiFi connection can still leave you vulnerable to the dangers of public WiFi, so here are some things to keep in mind:
- If you're using a phone (or a tablet with a cellular account), use your 3G or 4G network when handling sensitive data, such as logging into your banking app or email. All you have to do is turn off your WiFi in your device while you do this, and it will automatically connect over cellular networks instead of WiFi networks.
- Consider installing a virtual private network, or VPN. There are many to choose from, and most major VPNs offer a 30-day free trial. Look for one that covers your mobile device and your laptop, as those use two different operating systems. You can even find ones that allow you to secure up to five devices at once, which can protect your entire family.
- Save the sensitive surfing for a more secure connection. If you can avoid any sensitive activity like paying a bill or transferring money with your device, that's a good idea. If feasible, wait until you're back home on your password-protected, secured network for those kinds of things.
Read more about protecting your identity while traveling.
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This article was originally published on June 29, 2018, and has been updated.