Stay safe at the air­port, ho­tel, in rental car by con­nect­ing to se­cure Wi-Fi net­works dur­ing trips

Chicago Sun-Times (Sunday) - - TOP NEWS - BY ALEXAN­DRIA JA­COB­SON For the Sun-Times

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.

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