Using "Free" Wi-Fi Could End Up Being Very Expensive Experience


Lori Getz: "Hacking," "spoofing" and "phishing"? All real words, I promise -- and all are real problems, as well.

"Hacking" is the act of breaking into a computer, system or account in order to take control of administrative functions (including moving money from your bank account into the hacker's own). "Spoofing" is the act of impersonating someone or something in order to trick someone. "Phishing" is basically spoofing, but with the intent to not only impersonate, but also expose confidential information. In a nutshell, hacking, spoofing and phishing are forms of spying, and we are all at risk when we aren't paying attention! Ethical hackers (a.k.a. "white-hat hackers") often talk about how easy it is to hack into computers and accounts. They say it doesn't always require the installation of any fancy expensive software, either -- sometimes, just an open Wi-Fi network or public computer is all a hacker needs!

Have you ever stopped in at a coffee shop with free Wi-Fi? Using that free hotspot may prove to be a very expensive experience. Hackers can spoof a Wi-Fi network, or even get into your computer through the shared access. Sometimes they set up a free access point in public, ostensibly to give users access to free Internet -- but what they are really doing is phishing for your information by redirecting traffic through their machine. Any time you type in a password or enter in your credit card information, they are able to see exactly what you are doing. 

Hackers can also use shared Wi-Fi to hijack your machine and snoop through your personal files, exposing everything from passwords to banking information. For travelers who like the business centers at hotels, beware: You never know who was sitting at that computer before you. For less than $50, anyone can purchase and install snooping software that will track every future keystroke. 

The FTC estimates that approximately nine million Americans have their identities stolen each year. Of course, not all of those cases are due to Wi-Fi hotspots or hotel snoops, but with numbers that large, I'm assuming that some of you may have been victims yourself. To protect your identity, just follow a couple tips when you're online: 

  • Turn off file-sharing and Bluetooth connections when surfing the Web in public places. 
  • Access sensitive information (such as banking and credit card statements) online ONLY through a secure network (i.e., a network that requires a password to access the Wi-Fi). 
  • Look for the SSL icon. (It looks like a lock and is usually in the top right corner of the website.) Most banks encrypt data from your computer, so it makes it much more difficult to hack. 
  • If you travel often or rely heavily on open Wi-Fi access, install a virtual private network. This will shield information transmitted through the network. 
  • Finally, turn off Wi-Fi access on your PC or Mac when you're not using it. No reason to leave yourself open if you don't need to!

Moms, have you ever been the victim of a hacker, spoofer or phisher?


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