11 Safety Dos and Don'ts When Using Public Wi-Fi

smartphones using public wifi

Are you and your kids always on the lookout for free wi-fi when on a family vacation? Most of us are traveling with our smartphones and tablets these days, and plenty of us also bring our laptops on vacation

But public wi-fi hotspots in airports, hotel lobbies, shops and restaurants can be danger zones for identity theft, said Becky Frost, Consumer Education Manager for Experian's ProtectMyID, an identity theft protection service.

Don't let anyone in your family surf their way to a stolen identity. Have everyone agree to these 11 dos and don'ts when using public wi-fi:

DO accept that wi-fi sniffers are commonplace. "Thieves don't take vacations and they know where the public wi-fi spots are," said Frost. "Through a wi-fi sniffing device, a thief can easily see what's happening on a network. It doesn't mean that there's a thief in every coffee shop, but it's really better to be safe than sorry."

DO be aware of nosy onlookers. Known as 'shoulder surfers,' some thieves try to steal a glimpse of your information on your smartphone or laptop. Always be aware of who is nearby and shield your screen when keying in passwords.

DON'T use public wi-fi to access financial info. Never access a bank or credit card website or app on an open network. Also, don't make any online or in-app purchases and think twice before sending or receiving sensitive emails.

For these transactions, it's much safer to turn off public wi-fi and enable your mobile carrier's network or a personal wi-fi hotspot.

DO know when it's okay to use free wi-fi. Want to get the weather forecast, catch up on the news, check your flight information, or find directions to your destination?

None of those are a problem. "A good general rule is to only access information that you'd feel comfortable for someone looking over your shoulder to see," said Frost. "For me, that means it's okay to access any site that doesn't require me to enter a login and password."

DO confirm that your hotel wi-fi is on a secure connection. "Typically the wi-fi in a hotel lobby is public," said Frost. "If you need to enter a login and password to access the wi-fi in your room, that's usually an indication that the connection is secure. But it's always smart to ask the hotel how they are protecting your information."

DO learn to identify secure web pages. While most of the pages on the Internet begin with http://, a secure page that uses encryption will begin with https://. That extra "s" makes all the difference when you're typing in a user ID and password. Don't trust unsecure websites that ask for personal information.

DO use an alternative browser. To protect your browsing history and passwords, it can be a good idea to use a browser that's different from your day-to-day choice. So if you usually use, say, Chrome, then you may want to install and use Microsoft Explorer while on your trip. Another tactic is to use an incognito browsing window for basic browsing on sites that don't require passwords.

DO consider a personal wi-fi hotspot. Ask your wireless provider if you can (for an extra fee) set up a personal wi-fi hotspot that you can use for your family's phones, tablets and laptops. Alternatively, you can create a portable router with a local SIM data card available at electronic stores and even airport kiosks. 

DO be wary of shared PCs. Thinking about using a public computer in a library, cafe or hotel lobby? Go ahead, as long as the site doesn't requires logging in with a password or keying in your credit card number. "There's never any way to tell if malware or software has been installed on that computer that could compromise your data," said Frost.

DO protect your devices and important apps. Not only should you password-protect your smartphone and devices, but Frost recommends using password protection on all financial and heathcare apps.

"Sometimes apps will let you choose whether you want to key in a password at each login," she said. "It takes an extra four seconds to log in with a password, but if your phone were ever stolen that protection would save you from worrying if those apps had been shut down properly."

DON'T forget to log out. We tend to concern ourselves with logging into apps and websites, but it's equally important to be sure you log out after each use.

While you're thinking about protecting your data, learn how to prevent low-tech identity theft.

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