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How to Identify and Protect Yourself from Fake Public Wi-Fi Hotspots

Free public Wi-Fi can be found almost anywhere you go - from hotels, airports and cafés to trains, planes and buses. The convenience of free public Wi-Fi is undeniable, it means you don’t have to use your mobile data when out and about and you can still stay connected to the internet. However, it is very important to ensure that you are connecting to the right places.

Cunning fraudsters are creating fake Wi-Fi networks which, if you connect to by mistake, could result in having your personal and bank details stolen by criminals.

This guide will explain how hackers are using these networks to steal your information, how to identify fake networks, and how to stay safe when using public Wi-Fi.

How can fake public Wi-Fi steal my information?

Criminals set up fake public Wi-Fi hotspots so they can spy on, and sometimes control what you are doing online. They will be set up under innocent names like ‘free airport Wi-Fi’ or ‘Starbucks Wi-Fi’ and they will essentially work like any other free Wi-Fi service. The apparent legitimacy is what makes these hotspots so dangerous – you will still be able to use the internet and access all the apps and websites you usually use, and nothing should seem out of the ordinary.

With total access to everything you do whilst you’re connected to the network, the criminal can do any of the following;

  • View and steal log-in details to any app or website you log-in to – including online banking.
  • View and steal any personal information you enter into websites or social media.
  • Steal your credit/debit card details if you purchase something online.
  • Read and intercept messages and emails.
  • Redirect you to websites and pages that will infect your device with viruses and malware.

How to identify fake public Wi-Fi hotspots

Sometimes it can be very difficult to tell whether a Wi-Fi network is real or fake given that the criminal will often copy the name of the legitimate network and simply put the word “free” in front of it. So to start off, your best bet is to ask an employee what the network name is and if it is password protected.

But, if there is no one to ask, here are some tell-tale signs that a Wi-Fi hotspot isn’t genuine…

No password required

When you are using genuine public Wi-Fi, the network will almost always ask you for a password which you can get by asking an employee. If the network you choose isn’t password protected, then you should still double check with an employee that their Wi-Fi indeed doesn’t require a password.

Non-existent terms of service page

The majority of genuine public networks should direct you to a terms of service page which you must agree to before you can connect. If the network you have chosen doesn’t take you to a terms of service page, you should definitely think twice before going ahead.

Slower speed

Most public Wi-Fi nowadays is very fast and up to the same standard as the Wi-Fi you have at home. If the network you are using is unusually slow, it may be a sign that you are being rerouted.

Multiple error messages

If the app your using stops working, or your internet browser starts to show multiple error messages, it’s a strong sign that the network you’re using isn’t secure.

6 ways to protect your data when using public Wi-Fi

Now we have spoken about fake public Wi-Fi hotspots, it’s also important to go through the dangers of using legitimate public Wi-Fi too. Even though the café, hotel or airport who is providing the Wi-Fi service isn’t out to steal your information, the network is often open to anyone and it won’t usually be encrypted which means the data you input could be intercepted by a hacker.

Below are six tips to prevent your data from being stolen when you’re using public Wi-Fi.

1. Use a VPN

A VPN is a Virtual Private Network. Essentially, a VPN is a third party server that connects to the web on your behalf. When you’re connected to a VPN, all of your data will be encrypted before it reaches the public WiFi provider. This means that, even if a hacker tries to intercept the data you’re sending, all they will see is encrypted information and they won’t be able to read it. The destination site will also see the VPN as the original source, not you, which means no one will be able to easily see you as the original source of data.

You will have to pay a small monthly fee to use a VPN and it may slow down your connection speed a little when using it – but it’s definitely one of the best and safest tools if you want to protect your data.

2. Stick to HTTPS (and avoid HTTP) websites

If you are not using a VPN (see point one), then you should make sure that you are ONLY using HTTPS websites which can be identified with a green padlock symbol in the URL bar.

HTTP and HTTPS is essentially the method in which information is being sent and received between you and the website. HTTP means the data is being sent over in plain English – this means anyone who chooses to intercept it can read and steal the information easily. HTTPS means the information is being sent in an encrypted format and delivered through a safe tunnel to its destination – so any passwords, personal information, or bank details can’t be read by the hacker.

Read our article on how to tell if a website is safe and secure

3. Turn off your Wi-Fi when you’re not using it

When you’re out and about and not using the internet, you should keep the Wi-Fi on your devices switched off. This will prevent your device from being able to automatically connect to a hotspot without you knowing about it.

4. Ask to join networks

When you’re out and about and not using the internet, you should keep the Wi-Fi on your devices switched off. This will prevent your device from being able to automatically connect to a hotspot without you knowing about it.

5. Don’t forget about antivirus and antimalware

This can be said for anytime you are using the internet, whether at home or work, but it is especially important to make sure you are using antimalware and antivirus software when you are connected to public Wi-Fi. This will prevent your device from getting infected with viruses or malware if something goes wrong and your device gets hacked. There are many different companies offering these types of software so it doesn’t matter which ones you use – just make sure they are kept running and kept up-to-date at all times.

6. Avoid using public Wi-Fi all together

If you plan ahead before leaving the house, you may be able to avoid using public Wi-Fi all together. If you have to do some work when you’re out, try downloading any documents or emails you need before you go. The same can be said for films or TV shows you want to stream while travelling, for example.

If you really need to go online, consider using your mobile phone’s 4G service, or even the personal hotpot which you can connect your laptop to.


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