Consumer Watch: Avoid getting hacked on Wi-Fi

Consumer Watch: Avoid getting hacked on Wi-Fi

May 25th, 2014 by Ellen Phillips in Business Diary

Ellen Phillips

Q: How can I be sure that when I travel, Wi-Fi connections are secure?

- William Worried

A: Dear Mr. Worried: You're right to be concerned. Hackers lurk around every corner these days to snatch your cyber information right out from under you, and they're getting increasingly more sophisticated in their attacks. Whether you're waiting at the airport, looking at your bank balance, or drinking a cup of coffee at Panera while you check email, odds are a hacker is nearby, waiting to "eavesdrop."

There are 1.3 million Wi-Fi hot spots globally (and expected to climb to 5.8 million by the end of 2015), and these are everywhere you go: airports, bookstores, restaurants, hotels, schools, libraries, and other locations where thousands of people pass through daily. And, yes, while some do have secure networks, enough do not, which leaves us vulnerable to hacker intrusions and attacks.

Take a bogus but legitimate-looking network with a strong signal, for example. A hacker sets up nearby and waits for an unsuspecting victim to connect. Once this occurs, every ounce of personal info, including user ID, passwords, credit card numbers, bank account info, and so forth is snatched up by Terry Thief who goes on to spend your money and assume your identity. Furthermore, just as he's stolen from your laptop, iPad or smart phone, you may be unwittingly downloading viruses and other malware from him. Sadly, businesses that offer free Wi-Fi aren't aware their networks have been breached, even though law enforcement gets involved with the individual victim(s).

So what specifically can you do for self-protection?

1 Always make sure your cyber security is up-to-date with current versions of your operating systems, web browser, firewalls, antivirus, and anti-spyware software. (While Microsoft just fixed the vulnerability of its program, I'm still using Google Chrome for email protection purposes on my desktop.)

2 Never conduct financial transactions while "out."

3 Switch on the automatic updates of your software; do not download manually.

4 Change the default setting on your laptop, etc. so you have to manually select the Wi-Fi network to which you're connecting.

5 Turn off the Wi-Fi capabilities when not in use.

6 And as I always stress, use strong passwords and, what many of us forget, change them often. A weak password of only four characters can be hacked in less than one second!

According to Consumer Reports, the best free anti-malware program is Avast Free Antivirus. Although Apple computers aren't as susceptible to attacks, Mac users should still use Mac-compatible security software, not only to avoid new threats, but also to avoid passing on malware to other computers.

Ellen Phillips is a retired English teacher who has written two consumer-oriented books. Her Consumer Watch column appears every Saturday. Email her at consumer watch@timesfree press.com.