Ever notice how many people walk down the street completely engrossed in their smartphones and tablets? I fully expect to see one of them to walk into a light post one day. According to Cisco, about 750,000 Wi-Fi hotspots are now being used by over 700 million people around the world, so it's doubtful our wireless access addiction will diminish anytime soon.
Although it's great having access to email, social networking sites and online shopping anywhere, anytime, such convenience comes with a certain amount of risk, according to Jennifer Fischer, Head of Americas Payment System Security, Visa Inc. "Unless you're hyper-vigilant about using secure networks and hack-proof passwords, someone sitting at the next table -- or halfway around the world -- could be watching your every move online and stealing valuable personal and financial information right off your device," says Fischer.
"There are two primary potential dangers with Wi-Fi," notes Fischer. "The first is using an unsecured network -- as many public hotspots are. With a little know-how and the right tools, cybercriminals could easily eavesdrop on your online activity.
"The second hazard is phony wireless networks that impersonate legitimate Wi-Fi hot spots. You think you're logged on to a trusted network, but instead a cybercriminal has hijacked your session and can see all the private information you access or input."
- Change default settings on your laptop, smartphone or tablet to require that you must manually select a particular Wi-Fi network, rather than automatically accepting the strongest available signal.
- Avoid any network connections your device lists as "unsecured" (look for the "lock" icon). But if you must log on to a public network, avoid going to websites that require log-ins and passwords -- particularly for things like bank accounts or email.
- Ask for the exact name of the establishment's hot spot address -- don't be fooled by lookalikes. (Hot spot owners themselves should log on frequently to ensure that no copycat sites are trying to capitalize on their good name.)
- Only send personal data via Wi-Fi to encrypted websites (those whose addresses begin with "https" and display a lock icon). To be safe, you may want to avoid conducting financial transactions on public Wi-Fi altogether; instead, use your secure home network.
- Consider using a third-party virtual private network (VPN) product to encrypt your Internet traffic.
- Regularly update virus and spyware protection software, make sure firewalls are on, and load operating system updates as soon as they become available, whether for your computer or smartphone.
- Turn off Wi-Fi on your device when it's not in use.
- Never leave a computer unattended while signed in and always sign out completely at the end of a session.
- Keep an eye out for "shoulder surfers" who watch as you type in your password.
- When traveling, remove sensitive data from your laptop if possible -- things like financial spreadsheets, tax forms, banking files or documents containing your Social Security number or other personal identification.
- Finally, change passwords regularly and use different ones for each website you visit. Use a mixture of letters, numbers and symbols and avoid common words and phrases. Security experts recommend using at least 12 characters instead of the minimum eight characters commonly required. You can test the strength of your passwords at sites like Microsoft's Password Checker. They also have a guide to create strong passwords.
On October 2, 2013, my employer, Visa Inc. is hosting its fifth Global Security Summit, "Responsible Innovation: Building Trust in a Connected World," in Washington, D.C. "We're bringing together experts from the worlds of government, law enforcement, technology, finance, retail commerce and academia, including keynote speaker U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), to explore how industry and government can collaborate to address cyber security," says Fischer. "Those interested in attending can register for free at www.visasecuritysummit.com."
Being able to access the Internet anywhere anytime can be a great convenience and time-saver. Just make sure you know what precautions to take when using public Wi-Fi networks.
This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.