Stay Safe On Public Hotspots

5/7/2013 9:15:04 AM

Take steps to secure your system

Connecting your laptop to a public Wi-Fi hotspot is a little bit like blindly stepping off the curb; it’s dangerous. You could avoid connecting altogether, but that’s simply not an option when you’re on the road: You need to get work done, communicate, and access the Web, and public Wi-Fi may be the only option available. In this article, we’ll help you look both ways to stay safe on public hotspots.

Keep your system up-to-date to thwart those who would take advantage of exploits

Keep your system up-to-date to thwart those who would take advantage of exploits

Risky business

There are undoubtedly some doubters out there who’re reading this and thinking, “I’ve hopped onto hotspots dozens of times, and nothing bad ever happened.” Every day that passes, however, the tools that cybercriminals use to snoop, swipe, and infect your system get better, easier to use, and more automated. If it only takes a few seconds for a data thief to break into your system and start wreaking havoc, then you owe it to yourself to spend a few minutes to shore up your defenses. And it’s easy enough that even a computing novice can minimize his exposure to the hotspot threats you’re likely to encounter.

Maintain security software

This one should go without saying, but security software is typically pretty good at preventing unauthorized users from accessing your system, notifying you of the presence of infected files, and removing harmful links and malware. Make sure you have antivirus, anti-malware, and firewall utilities. Windows comes with firewall software enabled by default, but you may have to seek out third-party options for antivirus and anti-malware software.

Enable your firewall for public networks, and block incoming connections for even more protection

Enable your firewall for public networks, and block incoming connections for even more protection

To make sure your firewall is enabled in Windows 7, click Start, Control Panel, Security, and then click Windows firewall. Next, click Turn Windows Firewall On Or Off, input the administrator password if prompted or confirm the operation, then click On (Recommended) and then OK. In Win8, from the Start screen, type firewall, select Settings from the menu that appears on the right side of the screen, click Windows Firewall from the left, click Turn Windows Firewall On Or Off, and then select the radio buttons for Turn On Windows Firewall for public networks. You can also use the Block All Incoming Connections option from this menu; do this for some extra protection.

It’s also a good idea to make sure your laptop’s operating system and other applications are up to date before you hit the road.

Don’t share

The first time you connect to any network, Windows asks if you’re connecting to a Home Network, Work Network, or Public Network. Do yourself a favor and always select Public Network when connecting to a hotspot. This ensures that your PC is not visible to others using the hotspot, blocks malicious software, prevents access to the Home Group, and turns off network discovery.

Connect manually

Although doing so may seem tedious, make sure you’re manually connecting to hotspots every time. Rogue hotspots hosted by cybercriminals tend to use SSIDs (service set identifiers) that sound like they’re being hosted by a legitimate business. You may be inside a Starbucks, but that doesn’t mean you should trust any available hotspot with the coffee shop’s name in the SSID. Whenever possible, verify the hotspot’s SSID with an employee of the establishment before signing on.

Choosing Public for the hotspot network type can prevent several types of attacks

Choosing Public for the hotspot network type can prevent several types of attacks

We know what it’s like when you need to connect right away: It’s just easier to try the open networks before inquiring about a password to one of the closed ones. But don’t do it. Although password-protected networks aren’t inherently any safer, they can help you determine whether the network is hosted by the business or by a nearby data thief with a portable router.

Practice safe surfing

When you are connected to a public hotspot, avoid using e-commerce and banking sites if possible. If you must connect to these sites, make sure that no one else has a clear view of your screen or keyboard while you enter usernames and passwords. Also ensure that the sites on which you enter your information encrypt your data. Remember that secured URLs begin with HTTPS. When you’re finished, log out.

Hotspot hotshot

Following these simple steps will go a long way toward thwarting would-be hotspot hijackers. Go ahead, connect with confidence.

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