[DANGER] Free Wifi Hotspots Can Be Risky

Category: Wireless

Coffee shops, bookstores, airports, hotels, and other public places often provide free access to wireless Internet hotspots. But along with that convenience comes the danger of being digitally mugged. Here are some some simple tips you can use to make sure you're not broadcasting your business to snoops and hackers while using wifi hotspots...

Understanding Wifi Security Risks

While you're sipping that latte and working on a business plan, someone at the next table, or in a car outside, may be stealing sensitive data from your laptop or smartphone through the same wireless hotspot you are using. As you browse your email, someone nearby may be reading along with you. And you may never know your digital pocket has been picked. This is why it's important to understand wireless hotspot security and use it wisely.

Unsecured wireless networks are convenient - you don't have to enter a password, just fire up your laptop, tablet, or smartphone and let it connect to the wide-open wireless network. But anyone within range of that network can do the same, and without an encrypted connection you may be vulnerable to data theft.


It's a good idea to enable the firewall built into your laptop, even when using secured hotspots. A personal firewall can protect your data against other hotspot users. If you are connecting via wifi on a Windows computer, choose the "Public" option when asked what type of network you're on.

I also recommend that you disable file and printer sharing on your laptop before going out in public with it. Whatever data you allow to be shared on a network is available to other users of a wireless hotspot.

Extra Layers of Wifi Security

A few years ago, I met with a group of Internet professionals, all of us sporting laptops with wireless connections to the hotel's access point. On the second day of the conference, one of the attendees put up a slide showing logins and passwords from a dozen of the other attendees. Needless to say, many jaws dropped open! He was running a "wifi sniffer" to spy on the internet traffic floating around in the air. Fortunately, he was a trusted colleague, and was nice enough to tell us that we were caught with our virtual pants down.

If you use any website that requires you to login with a username and password, or has a form where you must enter personal information, look for the "https" in the website address. As long as you're on a page with an address that begins with https, the data you send and receive is protected from sniffers and snoopers. That little "s" is your assurance that your connection is encrypted. It's becoming more common, but not all sites use it.

If you use Outlook, Thunderbird or another desktop email program, adjust your account settings to require a secure connection when sending or receiving mail. Check with your Internet provider for help setting up a secure email connection.

Your connection is almost always encrypted when using online banking, or making a purchase on the web. But other venues, such as online forums or your web-based email may NOT use an encrypted connection. Gmail, Yahoo Mail, Hotmail/Outlook.com, and Facebook are fully encrypted, so you're safe there. (For mobile users, the Gmail app on Android smartphones and tablets is secure, as is the Mail app on Apple iPhone/iPad.)

What does all this mean? If you don't see HTTPS in the address bar of your browser, anything you read or post online, as well as any email you send or receive while using a public wifi connection may be exposed. If you enter a username and password on a website that doesn't offer HTTPS encryption, it's the equivalent to holding up a sign with your login credentials.

Remote Access and Other Wifi Security Tips

If your employer has a Virtual Private Network (VPN), use it for all communications when connecting via wifi. A VPN encrypts all data passing through it so that even if data is intercepted it cannot be read. If you're not on company business, consider a VPN service like Betternet, which is free and works on Windows, Mac, iOS and Android devices. The Opera browser also has a free VPN built in.

You can also use one of the free remote access services to protect your data against thieves. These tools let you connect to your home computer, and do your surfing through your own secure internet connection. Learn about the options in my related article Free Remote Access and Screen Sharing.

Consider disabling your device's WiFi adapter when it's not in use. This prevents your device from automatically connecting to any wireless hotspot you may pass. On smartphones, this will be found in the Settings dialog. Most laptops have a button or switch that makes enabling and disabling a WiFi adapter quick and easy. You'll also conserve battery power by turning off the WiFi when it's not needed.

It's worth noting that disabling wifi on your phone or tablet, and connecting instead with your device's mobile data will also keep you safe from the perils of public wifi. Similarly, if your smartphone has the capabbility to create a hotspot, you can connect to it from your laptop. You'll use some of your monthly data allotment, but you'll have peace of mind.

Oh, and of course there are the "shoulder surfers" to watch out for. Just like when you're entering your PIN code at an ATM, you need to keep an eye open for anyone who might be glancing over your shoulder while you hunt and peck in public. I always use two fingers when entering my pin or password... one presses the correct key and other is a decoy. So even if someone was watching from across the street with binoculars, it's almost impossible to steal a password.

Wireless hotspots are essential these days. But just as you wouldn't sit in a cafe with your wallet open on the table, you shouldn't leave your laptop or other mobile device wide open to thieves. If you must use public wifi in an airport, coffee shop, or hotel room, awareness and encryption are paramount. If the web address displayed by your browser starts with HTTPS, you're safe. If not, and you're not using a VPN or remote access service, everything is potentially exposed to hackers or snoops in the vicinity.

Do you have something to say about wifi hotspot security? Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "[DANGER] Free Wifi Hotspots Can Be Risky"

Posted by:

15 Dec 2017

I am still concerned about my ISP allowing other customers to use any of their customers wi-fi as a hotspot.

We bought our own gateway and stopped using the ISP provided router and wi-fi hardware in the hopes this would stop this happening to our connection.

Does it? Is there anything we can do to not allow this?

Posted by:

john silberman
15 Dec 2017

I never use public wifi without VPN. There are many free and paid for subscription VPNs I do have a paid subscription with Private Internet Access. I do not trust many of the free VPNs, as they may be collecting your data, but I do trust the free VPN that Proton Mail provides.

Posted by:

Ronald Hargarten
15 Dec 2017

In your article you recommend using a FREE app called Betternet. I downloaded the app and installed it, but it is not free. You are allowed 1 FREE reual period after which they will start charging you for the app.

Posted by:

Dave H.
15 Dec 2017

Thanks, Bob. Good stuff, as usual. In this day and age, anybody who doesn't, as an absolute minimum, have their firewall up DESERVES to have their digital pocket picked. Sheesh. A firewall and httpS -- it doesn't get much simpler than that, and you should be all set.

Posted by:

15 Dec 2017

@Lucy - If your ISP does have the wi-fi hotspots in customer model/routers (not all do,) then you can likely disable it. There is a very good article about this here: https://www.howtogeek.com/184727/your-home-router-may-also-be-a-public-hotspot-dont-panic/

You can jump down to the section called "Should You Care?" to read about disabling, but the entire article is not a long read. And, since you have concerns, it'd probably be good to read the whole article :)

Posted by:

15 Dec 2017


Thank you for taking the time to help me, I will hop over to that article now.

Posted by:

15 Dec 2017

@Lucy - If you purchased your own Modem/wireless router and didn't give your ISP the login password then your safe. When I set my equipment up and called the ISP to get it connected they asked for the password to the wireless router. I told them that they didn't need it and I never gave it to them.

Posted by:

15 Dec 2017

Thank you for that extra bit ifo Laurie ;-)

Posted by:

16 Dec 2017

@Ronald Hargarten, Betternet is free. You just need to ignore/click off the trial.

Posted by:

Ayode Longe
18 Dec 2017

Would it be safe to use free wifi, would one be protected from hackers if a paid VPN is installed in a laptop?

Posted by:

Robert B.
12 Aug 2019

I looked at the Betternet VPN with the intent of installing the free version. However, it appears that it's free for a week and then reverts to the paid version, and you have to provide a credit card to open the free version. And then if it's available at all, you have to jump thru some hoops to keep the free version.

I ended up deleting the app.

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