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How to safely use Public Hotspots/Wifi Zones.


Everywhere you go, somebody is offering free Wifi.  For businesses, the theory is simple, you come in, use the free Internet connection and all the while, you buy their overpriced coffee or sandwiches.  It works out well for everyone, they get your business and you get to surf the Internet for free.  Do not be fooled though, public Wifi (sometimes called Hotspots), can be dangerous.  The common user is not aware of the dangers and open themselves up to hackers and criminals if you do not employ safe habits.  Here is some good advice on how to use public Wifi safely.

Verify that the Wifi you are using, is the Wifi you are using.

Sounds strange, but if you walk into your local Panera Bread and try to log on to their network, how do you identify it?  It will more than likely say, "Panera Bread", but you do not know that for sure.  If you are logging onto a Public spot that you are unfamiliar with, ask an employee the name of the Wifi Network.  This is important, as a hacker may set up his own network and give it a similar name to what you think you are logging on.  If you log-on to his network, you are in trouble.  The whole purpose of his network is to raid your computer.  Your files are at risk and your system is at risk for malware.  An employee can verify the name of the network so that you are sure that you are truly logging on to the right network.

Turn your Firewall on.

If you follow my typical advice, it should already be on.  But if not, go to control panel - Windows Firewall and turn it on.

Block all incoming requests and File sharing.

In Windows 7, whenever you log onto a network for the first time, you will be prompted to identify the network you are logging on to.  It will be either, Home, Work or Public.  Make sure you pick Public for any and all public networks.  Doing so will by default block all incoming requests and turn off file sharing.  This is critical as any hacker will be counting on you having these features enabled.  It will allow him or her to access your system with little to no trouble.  Turning them off ups your security significantly.


If logging on to your email or any website that requires a log-on, make sure your address bar begins with HTTPS:.  This indicates that the log on is secure with encryption.  With this, anyone trying to access your system, will not be able to gain access to your logging on to a website.  It secures it.  Note that not every website utilizes HTTPS: to log on.  For Firefox users there is a extension available that you can install that will make most major websites log you on securely with HTTPS:.  The extension is called HTTPS Everywhere and can be found here.  Senator Charles Shumer recently called upon many of the most popular websites to start using HTTPS: as a matter of consumer protection.  You can read the article here.

Use a VPN

A VPN is a Virtual Private Network.  This essentially allows you to have a secure Internet Connection over another Internet Connection.  For those in the corporate america, you are familiar with VPN's.  They are common with Internet Users who have sensitive information that must be secure out of the office.  If you are working from home, you log onto a VPN with your company's network.  At that point, you have a direct internet connection with the company network that cannot be snooped on by hackers.  There is little demand for VPN's on home computers, so most do not use them.  However, if you are doing serious work or doing private Internet surfing on a public Wifi, a VPN is a great solution to keeping you secure.  There are three free VPN solutions you can use.  Hotspot Shield and Hamachi are completely free.  Security Kiss has a free limited version.

If it's Important, do it at home

Quite simply, you should not do anything personal on a public Wifi.  Do not check your bank account at Starbucks.  Do not shop online at McDonald's.  If it involves personal information, financial information, or any information that you would not like to be made public, wait until you get home and do it on your secure network.

CNET's Take on using public hotspots securely