The risks of using public Wi-Fi while travelling

The risks of using public Wi-Fi while travelling

  • We’re all addicted to Wi-Fi, looking for ways to stay connected on the go.
  • Find out what the risks are – there are probably some you aren’t aware of.
  • Learn the steps you need to take to protect yourself as much as possible.

In the days before smartphones and public Wi-Fi, travelling safely meant keeping your money in a wallet hidden under your clothes, locking your passport in a safety deposit box and using traveller’s cheques so you didn’t have to carry cash. Oh, how times have changed. 

Nowadays many travellers keep all their worldly goods easily accessible in a tiny computer in their back pocket or bag and have little regard for how safely locked away anything is on their device.

Travelling safely means having to think about how accessible your personal and banking information is to others and how to keep it protected. By using Wi-Fi when you travel, be it in the airport, on the train, in hotels or cafés, you could be exposing your personal data to others who could potentially use it for their own gains or pass it on to a third party.

Unless you have unlimited data and a cheap roaming plan, it’s highly likely you’ll be seeking out public Wi-Fi options when you travel. However, before you do, take some time to read about the risks involved with logging on to a public network and what to do to keep your personal information safe.

Infographic containing some public wifi statistics

The risks of using Wi-Fi

Despite most smartphone owners being attached to their devices from dawn till dusk, many people are blissfully unaware of the dangers of logging on to shared networks. On the other hand, there are people who willfully ignore the problems because they’re too busy celebrating the full strength four bars of Wi-Fi they’ve just scored!

Still, it’s good to have some knowledge of the risks of using public Wi-Fi when travelling so you can make up your own mind on whether to log on or not.

Man in the middle hacker attacks (MITM attacks)

If your screen appears to be jumping around you may be caught in the middle of a hacker attack. By positioning themselves between you and the Wi-Fi connection point, hackers can access any information you’re sending across the internet, including sensitive emails, credit card information and security credentials. Once the hacker has collated your data, he/she can use it as if they’re you whenever they like, or pass the information on to third parties.

Unencrypted networks

An encrypted network scrambles the information you send online into a code which is not readable by others. However, it’s not always obvious when Wi-Fi networks are encrypted. To find out if your connection is encrypted, check the Wi-Fi settings section of your device.

Malware attacks

Hackers can easily distribute malware across an unsecured Wi-Fi connection, especially if file sharing is allowed across a network. Look out for pop-up boxes during the connection process that offers upgrades to any software you may use. Clicking the install button inadvertently installs malware or viruses.

Rogue networks

Hackers can set up fake hotspots, or rogue networks, anywhere there is Wi-Fi. Once the rogue hotspot is set up, any data travelling through that route can be manipulated or redirected. More often than not, rogue networks are set up to direct users to clone sites to be able to capture personal information.

Phishing attacks

If you’re an email user, you will be familiar with phishing scams. Working in a similar way to rogue hotspots, the hackers try to lure users into revealing personal information through emails looking remarkably like your bank or credit card company. You’re often asked to click on a link that will inevitably lead to a fake website designed to steal your log-in information.

Snooping and sniffing

Described as being the technical equivalent of a physical spy, sniffing, in internet terms, is when plain text can be intercepted and read by the hacker. Generally, a sniffer is a piece of hardware or software designed to capture data as it’s transferred over a network and then decoded into a format readable by people. Sniffers are often used to steal usernames, passwords or banking details. Snooping is much the same.

Fake hotspots

These are Wi-Fi connections set up with a similar name to the real hotspot. Some of them may have the name of the establishment and a logo, but are in fact owned by cybercriminals. Always double-check the name of the hotspot where you’re logging on and make sure it is the right name, including symbols and numbers.

How to stay protected online while travelling

Do

  • Check whose network it is you’re joining.

Take the time to ask the staff where you are the exact name of the network you’re logging on to.

  • Check antivirus software and firewall is updated and enabled.

  • Use 2FA for sensitive sites.

Two factor authentication, such as having to enter a passcode that’s been texted to your phone or randomly generated number through an app, helps keep hackers at bay.

  • Password lock your devices.

  • Turn off file sharing.

You can turn off file sharing from the Control Panel or via System Preferences, depending on your operating system. Or choose the “Public” option when logging on to a new network.

  • Switch Wi-Fi off when you don’t need it.

  • Buy an unlimited data plan to avoid using Wi-Fi. 

This really only works with certain phone plans while roaming. Many phone companies offer some sort of international roaming plan, however, they often work out to be expensive. 

  • Use a VPN.

A VPN (Virtual Private Network) extends a private network across a public network such as public Wi-Fi and allows you to create a secure private connection to the internet. All data is encrypted. VPNs are particularly useful for business travellers who may need to protect sensitive data.

Don't

  • Don’t be lured by pop-up boxes asking you to update software before logging on, in case you inadvertently download malware at the same time.

  • Don’t log on to banks or any platform that accesses your finances. If you’re travelling and can’t do banking at home, download a VPN so you can access your bank safely.

  • Don’t use auto Wi-Fi.

  • Don’t share confidential data.

  • Don’t browse sites unless they display HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure) in the URL. But be aware – while the website may be secure, any personal data you enter into the site may be vulnerable if you’re using public Wi-Fi.

Are any Wi-Fi networks safe?

In short: no. Even when using a VPN, there is still a risk of your information reaching the wrong hands. Just look at all the breaches of information that have happened in big firms where you were convinced your information was safe. 

Despite the overwhelming reasons for opting out of using Wi-Fi in public places, many of us log on regardless. But you can take some steps to stay safe online. If you’re aware of the risks of using public Wi-Fi and know what to do when travelling away from home, at least you’ll know how to best protect yourself and your personal information from hackers.

References for infographic

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