TRAVELING FOR HOLIDAYS?
Stay safe at the airport, hotel, in rental car by connecting to secure Wi-Fi networks during trips
Whether by planes, trains or automobiles, those traveling for the holidays will likely want to stay connected on their electronic devices.
More than 54.3 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home this Thanksgiving, according to AAA. But connecting phones, tablets and computers to unsecured Wi-Fi service can leave travelers vulnerable to scammers, consumer experts warn.
Coffee shops, airports and hotels often tout free Wi-Fi service, but consumers need to make sure they’re using a secure network from a trusted business.
“When you join a Wi-Fi network, you are allowing your computer to receive and transmit data packets to and from your device and the Wi-Fi router,” says Maura Possley, spokeswoman for the Illinois attorney general’s office. “Clicking and joining a Wi-Fi network with just one alphanumeric character difference from the true network name may mean the difference of casual browsing or a hacker intercepting all data transmitted to and from your device.”
Confirm name of the Wi-Fi network
Because people and businesses can name their Wi-Fi networks whatever they want, scammers often choose Wi-Fi network names similar to a business’ network, hoping consumers will connect to the scam network.
“You’ve got to be very careful when using Wi-Fi, especially free ones,” says Steve Bernas, president of the Better Business Bureau of Chicago and Northern Illinois. “They could name the Wi-Fi anything, so they could pull up a van next to the hotel and name their WiFi whatever they want you to see.”
It’s important to ask an employee the name and password for the Wi-Fi network before connecting to make sure you are choosing the correct network.
“I’d stay away from completely free Wi-Fi with no password because you don’t know who has control of that,” Bernas says.
Use encrypted sites
Even if you connect with a legitimate company’s public Wi-Fi, the business could be collecting information about your browsing habits and personal data. That’s why it’s best to only use websites that are encrypted, meaning the information you send over the internet becomes scrambled into codes that are not accessible to others, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
This is especially important when using banking websites or other sites with highly sensitive personal information.
“The way you can tell if you’re sending information into a website that’s fully encrypted is if it has ‘https’ at the start of the URL at the top,” says Todd Kossow, regional director for the FTC’s Midwest Region.
“The ‘s’ is for secure, and usually there’s a lock icon as well that shows you that it’s an encrypted website.”
If you travel frequently, consider using a VPN, or virtual private network — but make sure to purchase the service from a legitimate company.
“A VPN creates an encrypted connection between your device, your laptop or your phone and the VPN provider’s network, and that allows you to securely connect to the internet and keep your exchanges private while you’re using the public Wi-Fi,” Kossow says.
Rental car privacy
If you’re traveling in a rental car, be aware that if you don’t disconnect from the vehicle’s Bluetooth infotainment system, your personal information — including contacts and text messages — could be left behind for scammers to grab.
“I would never connect my phone to a rental car,” says Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy and technology for the nonprofit Consumers Union. “If [scammers] do get access to all your contact information, they’ve got everything on your device. There’s really sensitive stuff on there.
“I think the benefits of connecting your phone to Bluetooth for a rental car are dwarfed by the risks. I think it’s just not worth it,” Brookman says.
In general, consumer advocates recommend turning off Bluetooth when you’re not using it to make sure you don’t automatically connect to unfamiliar networks.
Four more tips for travelers
◆ Make sure all your devices’ settings are up-to-date to protect against malware.
◆ Check your settings to make sure you aren’t automatically connecting to undesirable Wi-Fi networks.
◆ Take care not to share your location unintentionally when posting on social media.
◆ Remember to log out of your online accounts before accessing public Wi-Fi.
This is the fourth story in the series “Be On Guard,” reported by the Chicago Sun-Times and made possible through the support of AARP Illinois. The AARP Fraud Watch Network can help protect you from frauds and scams. Call this free helpline (877) 908-3360 to speak with volunteers trained in fraud counseling.
“You’ve got to be very careful when using Wi-Fi, especially free ones,” warns Steve Bernas, president of the Better Business Bureau of Chicago and Northern Illinois. He says potential scammers can use Wi-Fi names similar to business networks.