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When telecommunications companies decided to provide free WiFi to subscribers, it was great news. But then warnings started popping out about the dangers of using unsecured WiFi connections. Then hackers got wind of it. And now these free hotspots are fast becoming the favorite playground of online thieves.
Nationwide Free WiFi from Telcos
Telecommunications companies like Comcast are offering their subscribers free access to their WiFi networks. They have set up a bunch of hotspots all over the country that can be accessed through any device. Customers of these telcos can use the Internet free of charge almost anywhere in the US. This was the greatest service bonus of the year for many Americans. Most already own mobile phones and are subscribed to one telco or another. But as the saying goes, there’s something wrong if it’s too good to be true.
The Dangers of Free WiFi
We have all heard from someone or read somewhere that WiFi hotspots are dangerous. Subscribers need a code to connect to their provider’s network. Most think that this makes the network safe. This is the first mistake. With Comcast and Time Warner, users log in with their email and password. Hackers can do a lot of damage to the customer, other subscribers, and all their friends, with just this login information. Starbucks has a similar login procedure, and when searched on the web, users will see their network is simply “Starbucks.” Is this the real thing? What about AT&T’s “attwifi”? All hackers need to do is create a network with a familiar looking name and they can hook a ton of users.
The second and even bigger mistake is thinking the name of a network tells you who is behind it. For instance, Comcast has opened their xfinity WiFi network to the public from Memorial Day to July 4th. The name of the network is xfinitywifi. Connecting to a network that shows this name is no assurance that this is Comcast’s network, however. Hackers from all over the world have heard of this free WiFi by now. You can be sure they are jumping at the chance to masquerade as the Comcast network. When unsuspecting users gleefully connect to an “xfinitywifi” hotspot, they can be opening their traffic and all the data on their devices to hackers.
These hackers are just waiting around for people to connect to their fake Comcast network so they can steal valuable personal information to launch social engineering attacks. With luck they may stumble on a bunch of username and password combinations for online banking accounts. And even if no important user data is stolen, the user’s device can become part of the hacker’s botnet, used to infect the devices of other people who are connected to the fake Comcast hotspot. With free WiFi, that’s going to be a lot of connected mobile phones, tabs and laptops. That equates to a huge amount of sensitive data that can get credit cards, ATM and debit cards, and bank accounts cleaned out in no time.
WiFi Hotspot Safety
We can’t resist using free wifi when it taunts us on such a large scale. Especially when companies are giving it for free. Even when we realize how dangerous it can be, we may still be tempted. The solution is not to bite down and turn away from the offer. Turning down an offer that later proves to be legit is too painful. The way to have your cake and eat it too is to follow a few simple rules when connecting to those wonderful hotspots all over the US. First, we must assume that all free hotspots are unsafe. If you’re not sure what information you might be allowing hackers to see, or if you need to do sensitive transactions online, do it through a VPN service.
In truth, not only open wifi but virtually any network that you do not control can be potentially dangerous. There are many cases of people catching Trojans, keyloggers, and various malware from using the Internet at their family or friends’ homes or on their devices. It is difficult to tell when a network has been compromised, or whose device might be infected or part of a botnet. It is best to play it safe and connect to the Internet from a device that is secured by a VPN. This is to date the best technical defense that we have.
There are many VPN service providers out there that meet different needs. Remember though that free does not usually mean quality, so make your selection first based on an excellent record for highly valuing privacy and having top level security for users. Also consider a provider that supports a range of devices so you can secure all your devices. They also have a wide network of fast servers to choose from and provide outstanding customer support and ease of use for even the least technically adept users. Having a VPN on your device will encrypt your data so no one can read it, and secure your traffic so no one can see what you are sending over the Internet.