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Free, public Wi-Fi is available almost everywhere today. From the usual spots, such as coffee bars and airports, to the less common, such as steakhouses and amusement parks, public Wi-Fi is a convenience upon which most consumers rely.

The problem with public Wi-Fi, however, lies in its very name—it’s public. Unlike your home Wi-Fi which is a secure, private network, public Wi-Fi is unsecure and generally does not encrypt the information you are sending. This means hackers can access or steal your files and information.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, visiting a website that only uses encryption on the sign-in page or visiting websites using an unsecured network can give other users on the network access to your computer. A hacker can then easily log into your accounts putting your personal information, private documents, contacts, even your photos at risk.

Norton, the makers of computer security and anti-virus systems, suggests consumers avoid logging into websites that may hold sensitive information while on public Wi-Fi.  This includes email, social networking sites, and your bank website. If you must send data along an unsecure connection, the FTC and Norton advise:

 

  • Use different passwords on different websites. Hackers will attempt to access all of your accounts. If your password is the same for all of them, you’ve made it easy.
  • Log out of accounts once finished.  You wouldn’t keep your wallet open on the table—treat your bank account the same way.
  • Use a VPN (virtual private network).  VPNs can help make you undetectable, allowing you to check sites with less worry.
  • Be aware of your surroundings.  Take a few moments to make sure no one is  sitting too close or watching what you type. Consider purchasing a privacy screen for your computer screen, or at least sit with your laptop screen turned away from everyone else.

 

Consumers should also turn off file sharing and set your device(s) to forget the network. By forgetting the network, you won’t automatically connect every time you are within range.

In today’s mobile society, it’s unrealistic to tell consumers to avoid using public Wi-Fi. But there are ways consumers can use it smarter and more safely.

If you have additional questions, contact the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation by calling our Consumer Hotline at (617) 973-8787, or toll-free in MA at (888) 283-3757, Monday through Friday, from 9 am-4:30 pm. Follow the Office on Facebook and Twitter, @Mass_Consumer. The Baker-Polito Administration’s Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation is committed to protecting consumers through consumer advocacy and education.

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