It’s a Friday morning in a Chicago Starbucks. The pre-work rush has ended, leaving about a dozen people scattered throughout the store. Nearly everyone is working on a laptop. Some are regulars, and many have stayed for hours to work, send emails, check Twitter and enjoy the other conveniences of free Wi-Fi.
People have come to expect access to public networks like this, but the ability to be constantly connected to the Internet carries significant risks: Every username and password you enter while hooked up to public Wi-Fi has the potential to be intercepted and used against you. There’s no knowing the intentions of the people around you — whether you’re in a half-empty coffee shop or a crowded airport terminal, someone may be trying to hijack your personal information using the open network.
Public Wi-Fi may be a hacker’s playground, but that hasn’t stopped people from using it or asking local businesses to provide it. Despite the risks, free Wi-Fi is likely to continue to popping up in public areas around the world.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey last month approved a plan to offer free Wi-Fi in New York City area airports this fall. At the moment, travelers can access the Internet for $4.95 an hour, $7.95 for 24 hours or $9.95 a month for access at Boingo Wireless hotspots across the globe, but free Wi-Fi has long been a top demand from travelers passing through JFK, LaGuardia and Newark airports. (Internet access, however, will only be free for 30 minutes at the New York airports; travelers can continue access beyond a half-hour by paying.) This probably means more people will be using the Internet at these airports, meaning more people will put themselves at risk for fraud, identity theft and related financial issues. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t hook up to a hotspot during that three-hour layover, but you need to know what you’re dealing with.
It’s OK to Love Free Internet
Free Wi-Fi is a little bit like junk food: It makes us happy, even though we know it’s not necessarily in our best interest. As such, we should balance it with smart choices in order to minimize our exposure to health (i.e. security) risks.
There’s no denying the happiness people get from junk-food buffets, or in this case, free Wi-Fi. Coffee-shop Wi-Fi has become a fixture of modern productivity and is practically a lifeline for people who need to connect to work, or to study and learn about what’s going on beyond their hometowns. In an airport setting, free Internet access may be the difference between agonizing boredom and a tolerable hour at the gate during a flight delay.
At the Indianapolis International Airport , free Wi-Fi is an integral part of the effort to please its visitors.
“We try to really stress the customer experience here,” said Carlo Bertolini, spokesman for the Indianapolis airport. For the past two years, it has held the title “Best Airport in North America,” as determined by Airports Council International’s airport service quality awards. It also won the award in 2010 and was runner-up in 2011. Indianapolis has offered free Wi-Fi to all travelers since its new terminal opened in 2008, and the service is a key part of the high traveler-satisfaction ratings it receives, Bertolini said.
The airport has a faster connection travelers can pay to use, but only a few thousand people used it last year. More than 1 million of the 7.2 million travelers who passed through IND last year connected to the free Internet.
“That’s obviously a touchpoint for customers,” Bertolini said, “especially given the prevalence of mobile devices.”
The Ugly Side of Free Wi-Fi
Easy, inexpensive Internet access may make people happy, but getting hacked has the opposite affect. A large airport may have an IT team or employee dedicated to addressing security issues on the network, but a local coffee shop may not, and in either case, your vulnerability depends heavily on the intentions of the people sharing the network connection you’re using. This isn’t a shortcoming of free Wi-Fi alone: The same goes for your home Internet, if you haven’t taken steps to keep unauthorized users off your connection.
“The risk doesn’t depend on your location,” said Damon Petraglia, an information security forensic investigator. “It depends on how that network was configured and who’s around and who wants to do something malicious. Crimes can happen in a big city, but they also happen in small towns.”
In other words, they can happen at a big airport or at your home, if your Internet connection isn’t secure. There are myriad ways someone can access your online activities, so exercising caution when using free Wi-Fi and regularly monitoring your online and financial accounts for suspicious activity will allow you to stem any potential damage a hacker may do with access to your information.
“Whatever you’re doing can be intercepted, and it may not be any fault of your own, so best practice is to try and use common sense,” Petraglia said. “For the free Wi-Fi stuff, never put in any information you wouldn’t scream out in public.”
What to Do When Free & Fraud Collide
Petraglia said he rarely uses public Internet. Adam Levin, Credit.com’s chairman and co-founder, advises consumers to avoid it, as well. If that doesn’t sound realistic for your lifestyle, you need to accept the responsibility of protecting yourself and accepting the likelihood you’ll experience a breach at some point.
“Don’t take security for granted,” Levin said. “Virus checkers, malware spotters and supposedly ironclad firewalls won’t always protect your personal information. Hackers are in the business of creating new forms of malware that avoid detection. Don’t solely rely on technology to protect your personal data – constantly self-monitor.”
In addition to checking your bank statements and other online accounts, you should regularly review your credit reports and credit scores for signs of fraud. Errors on your credit reports (which you can get here) should be addressed as soon as possible with the credit reporting agency that issued your report, and if you notice a sudden drop in your credit score, you’ll want to investigate if you’ve been a victim of fraud. You can get your credit data for free through Credit.com, which allows you to check and work to improve your credit standing, as well as monitor for signs of identity theft.
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