How to keep info safe in Wi-Fi hotspots

October 21, 2010

Barnes & Noble offers free wireless Internet. So does McDonald's, Hampton Inn and Starbucks. Customers just can't seem to get enough of it. But is it safe to go online in public places through a Wi-Fi hotspot? Consumer Reports engineer Dean Gallea says you have to be careful.

"You're actually connecting into a computer network with strangers. And a hacker can get at personal information that you provide, or even trick you into connecting to a fake hotspot."

As an example, Dean parked his car near a Starbucks with his laptop and logged into the free Wi-Fi that was available there. Dean created a fake hotspot to see if anyone would use his to log onto.

Outside of the coffeehouse was one of his colleagues logging on to the same hotspot. A phony ''Starbucks Free" connection that Dean created came up at the top of the list of available Wi-Fi connections. The colleague chose Dean's fake hotspot instead of the legitimate one setup by the Starbucks coffeehouse.

Consumer Reports suggests that before logging on to any public Wi-Fi, be sure to confirm the name of the wireless network connection being used at that particular location. In this case it wasn't 'Star bucks', but rather ATT Wi Fi, which was down the list of available Wi-Fi clients available.

Another precaution to keep in mind, before sending any personal information like a credit card number, look for the letters 'https' in the address bar, not simply 'http'. The 's' means the data leaving your computer is sent securely.

Gallea says that your best protection in a Wi-Fi hotspot is simple.

"When you're connected to a public hotspot (don't') send any personal information at all."

One other step you can take to help yourself be more secure is to turn off your computer's file and printer sharing features. This will prevent people on the wireless network from having access to your personal documents. If you're not sure exactly how to do this, just check your computer's 'help' menu for directions.

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