You sit down, struggle with the broken keyboard in an internet cafe to email a few friends, pay and leave. Two weeks later your aging uncle Bob is wondering why his favorite nephew is sending him links for cheap Viagra -- or worse.
This horrid scenario is a constant risk to travelers who use public computers and don't understand internet cafe security. From juvenile annoyances such as changed Facebook statuses (I've seen "I'm in love with a ladyboy here in Thailand") to more nefarious crimes such as identity theft, travelers run the risk every time that they log into an account on an unknown computer.
Using Internet Cafes Abroad
Travelers who do not carry laptops typically end up using internet cafes. Internet cafes of varying quality are found throughout Asia. Prices can be as cheap as $1 per hour, and speeds depend on how many local kids are playing World of Warcraft or how many movies the staff are downloading at that given moment.
Tip: Always clear cookies and close the internet browser at the end of your session.
Internet Cafe Security and Keylogging
The real risk comes from both the staff and users who install keylogging or capture software onto internet cafe computers. When you log into your email, Facebook, or even bank account, both the username and password are saved into a text file for them to access later. In any given day, they can accumulate scores of credentials to sell to spammers later.
Unfortunately there is little you can do if keylogging software has been installed on a computer other than making an effort to use computers in more trusted places.
- Read more about keylogging.
Internet Browsers on USB Drives
A quick way to protect yourself -- at least at the browser level -- is to put a portable internet browser onto a USB thumbdrive/memory stick. You simply insert the USB drive into the public computer, then start the browser by clicking on the executable file. All your saved credentials, cookies, and even bookmarks are kept handy in one portable place -- just don't forget to take your USB drive with you when you leave the cafe!
Portable web browsers are easy to download and are self-contained in one file. Download either Firefox Portable or Google Chrome Portable and save them to your memory stick. Ipods can also double as USB storage devices; you could install a portable browser on your MP3 player.
Tip: Many computers in internet cafes have viruses; your USB drive and iPod could become infected. Check the drive with anti-virus software before using it at home.
Securing the Internet Browser
If you must use the browser on a public computer, there are some minimal security steps that you can take to protect your personal information.
- Try to use Firefox or Google Chrome rather than Internet Explorer.
- If using Firefox, use "Private Browsing" mode where no personal information is saved. Try pressing ctrl-shift-p or choose "start private browsing" under the "tools" menu.
- Turn off "remember passwords" in Internet Explorer. Read about how to disable password storage in IE.
Clearing Your Personal Data
After finishing your session on a public computer, you should clear the cache, cookies, and saved data such as user names.
- In Firefox: In many Firefox browsers, you can clear data quickly by pressing ctrl-shift-del. Otherwise, choose "tools" and "clear recent history."
- Google Chrome: Read about how to clear private data in Chrome.
- Internet Explorer: Read about clearing private data from Internet Explorer.
Read all about clearing private data from internet browsers.
Skype, Facebook, and Instant Messengers
Skype, the most popular software for calling home from abroad, has a nasty habit of keeping your account logged in after you leave. This means that anyone using the same computer can burn up your credit by making calls with your account. Always click on the Skype icon running in the traybar (bottom right) and log yourself out.
Yahoo Messenger and others tend to do the same as Skype: they keep you logged in permanently. Again, right-click on the traybar icon and close them so that other users cannot impersonate you!
When using Facebook, uncheck the box that says "keep me logged in" and always log yourself out manually when finished.
Unsecured Wireless Networks
Although not as common, travelers who connect to free Wi-Fi hotspots with their own laptops are at risk of a sophisticated scam known as "channeling." Channeling is when someone creates a fake Wi-Fi hotspot, allows you to connect, then captures your personal information. You are granted free internet access and all seems well, however, the fake hotspot is capturing your data.
Fake hotspots are typically set up on users' laptops in public places such as airports, and have inviting names such as "Free Airport Wi-Fi" or even "Starbucks." The hotspots are not sanctioned by the businesses they mimic.
When using free Wi-Fi or hotspots of unknown origin, stick to only checking email; save your online banking for later.