Most of us know this too well: you are coming to the close end of your data limit for the month. Very soon, this would mean for many that their smartphone ceases to be functional. You want to show someone a video but just don’t have enough left to spare, so you look and find an open Wi-Fi network right away. This would mean great news, right?
Well, unfortunately, as the old saying goes, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” While free Wi-Fi might seem like a gift with no strings attached, there are some important things you should know before connecting. Here are some of the things that can go wrong and eight easy tips to avoid them.
1. Avoid internet banking and shopping
Thinking of moving some money around or checking your accounts? Maybe you need to verify some purchases or transfer funds from your personal or business account? Think again about using an open Wi-Fi network to do it.
Without the proper security, cookie trails will be left behind that unscrupulous people can use to access your account and drain it. The same goes for online purchases from Amazon or other internet retailers. By entering your credit card details on an unsecured network, you risk losing everything to fraudsters.
2. Turn off Wi-Fi when you’re not actively using it
Once you’re done using online Wi-Fi, be sure to turn off your device’s transmitter. Otherwise, the public network could drain your phone, tablet, or laptop’s precious battery life, as well as collect your data to send you ads.
On top of that, the free network could be tracking your location, which you might not appreciate. Many apps and browser extensions can help you avoid this.
To be on the safe side, just turn it off when you’re done or avoid using the open network altogether.
3. Use a VPN to Protect Yourself
If you really are in a pinch and need to use the free Wi-Fi, one way of keeping your data safe is using a VPN (a virtual private network). By generating a random IP address, VPNs hide your machine from the prying eyes of advertisers as well as hackers.
There are some downsides to using VPNs in that they often don’t run quite as fast as a direct connection. Many of the most effective ones also require some form of payment.
But once again, the little you pay now might prevent you from losing a lot later.
4. Have an updated antivirus software
By installing antivirus programs and making sure you have the latest version of whatever antivirus software you’ve chosen, you can go a long way toward keeping your computer safe from malware. This is particularly important for a public network that a lot of people are using, including some who might not be so honest.
5. Protect your password(s)
It’s obviously a good idea not to have your passwords on your device, as anyone who gets into the main system will have access to them. If you can’t remember them, then try using a password manager that remembers them for you but keeps them in an encrypted form. Remember, when it comes to passwords, there’s no such thing as being too careful.
6. Verify the website’s URL
One way of knowing that you’ve landed on a fraudulent open network is that it will keep automatically redirecting you to sites that look real but actually aren’t. Oftentimes, the differences in URL will be slight, maybe just one odd character or so. Look closely at the address to make sure it’s right.
An up-to-date internet browser should also help out with this, alerting you to the fact that something isn’t right.
7. Use a safe connection
Even when you do have to rely on an open network, there are things you can do to protect yourself, including using safe sites. You can identify these by the initial https instead of the normal http. Most reputable websites that deal with important data will automatically direct you to their safe version when appropriate.
Extensions such as HTTPS everywhere can be a big help with this. This free program, created by the internet users’ rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation, will allow you to browse safely on most sites on the web.
8. Watch out for copycat networks
Many times, scammers and hackers will create an open network that is something very similar to the real one. For example, instead of “Starbucks Free Wifi,” the network could be “Starbuck’s Free Wifi.” The second one looks authentic and is even grammatically correct, but it doesn’t belong to the store.
One way to avoid this is to look for networks that require some kind of verification once you log on to their host page. This could be a code sent to your phone or one that has to be obtained from the receipt of your food or beverage purchase. These additional verification procedures are a great practice.