I know when your on the road, traveling in a new city, seeing an open Wi-FI hot spot after checking into a hotel room can seem like a lucky break.
But be very careful. You must understand that the free hot spot your tapped into may actually be a very "weak spot" when it comes to the security of your computer and personal information. They may also be able to sneak into your companies network on your coat tails.
You must understand that anything you do when connected to a public / Free Wi-Fi connection can be "viewed" by anyone within WiFi range of your computer. Think of it this way... If you using an open connection in pubic your basically SHOUTING your information across the room for anyone with another laptop to listen into. NOTE: if you using a corporate security/networking service you may be protected.
Two ways you can be hacked.... First is the Wi-Fi node you have attached onto titled "LocalFreeInternet", is actually set up as bait. The criminal becomes a "man in the middle" Everything you do on this connection will be monitored by a criminal waiting for you to type in personal information and data.
Second is while connected to a legitimate Hot-Spot run by a reliable company your Wi-Fi signal can be monitored. As you type away and send your date to the wireless router in your local coffee shop it is very possible that a creep in their car just outside is recording everything everyone in the shop is doing online.
Software is readily available to help hackers setup either of these two scenarios. Collecting credit card numbers, user id's and passwords. Tools are also available that might allow the hacker to take over your machine and mine your machine for data.
All this happens without your knowledge.....
The only real solution is a VPN, Virtual Private Network, which sets up a very secure "tunnel" effect between your laptop and a secured computer at, for example your office. When you type data into your laptop it is first scrambled and coded by your laptop and then sent over the open Wi-Fi airways. It then travels to the secure computer where your communication is decoded and processed as needed. Many companies require their employees to use such services when working via Wi-Fi connections.
How do you deal with this?
- Stay off of wireless networks. Use only hardwired Internet connections
- Keep your computers operating system current. Enable/install firewall, antivirus and antispyware software and turn on the auto update feature. I'm currently using ESet Smart Security on my laptop.
- Do online-banking only while at home or on a hardwired connection you can trust.
- If you use Wi-Fi at home, with security enabled, and make sure your home router has a unique SSID name. Don't use the default name like LINKSYS. Also don't use an SSID that identifies you like MURRAYWIFI.
- Turn off your laptops WiFi when your not using the Internet. You will also save battery life.
If you must use open Wi-Fi connections the only real solution is a reliable VPN service. HotSpotVPN has been around for a while and they allow you to purchase their service for as little as one day at a time. Check out their service, it is the only one I would use. www.HotSpotVPN.com
UPDATE: Also check out Witopia's PersonalVPN
NOTE: These concerns also exist for Wi-Fi equipped cellphones. For additional information visit Wi-Fi Alliance and OnGuardOnline.gov.