In the 1990s, almost no one worried about the possibility of a stranger gaining unauthorized access to their email account. At that time, most people only used email to connect with friends and family, so even if their account was compromised, it didn’t pose much of a risk.
Today, email accounts not only carry personal information in private conversations but are the method for recovering lost passwords for online accounts. So gaining access to your email account can be a golden ticket for hackers to get into online accounts you’ve set up for online banking, investment accounts, social media, and file sharing, just to name a few.
According to data gathered from more than 20,000 anonymous users, the average person in the U.S. has 130 accounts registered to one email address. When most of your business is conducted online, any time a hacker gains access to your email account, he’s basically gained control of much of your life.
The easiest way for hackers to gain control of your email account is through public WiFi. Although people warn against using public WiFi, many others ignore such warnings because they don’t believe it’s that great a risk.
To understand how public WiFi can pose such an enormous threat to your electronic security, you need to understand a little about how it works.
How WiFi works
WiFi, which is short for “Wireless Fidelity,” is a simple way to connect multiple computers wirelessly so they can share data without cables running everywhere. A router broadcasts a wireless signal that gets picked up by your computer and establishes the connection.
Once the connection is established, you have access to data stored on other computers that are connected to the network. Basically, the entire internet is available through multiple computers to which you now have access.
But routers do more than provide you with an internet connection; they also store data.
Routers are computers, too
If you’ve ever set up a WiFi connection in your home, you might remember connecting the router to your computer with an Ethernet cable and using a software installation disc to create your network name and password.
Any time you set up a network, the information is stored directly on your router’s hard drive. In other words, a network is launched inside the router, not your computer.
This means your network can go anywhere your router goes. This also means hackers can create “fake” portable networks and bring them to public places where they know people connect to free internet.
They might camp out at Starbucks and create an open WiFi network named “Starbucks WiFi” so customers think they’re connecting to the real Starbucks network; but in fact, it’s a trap.
So what happens if a hacker sets up a portable network that lets people connect to the internet for free? Since the intruder controls the router, and the router stores data, anything you access while you’re connected to a hacker’s Wi-Fi network will be stored in that router, including your email username and password.
However, if hackers get hold of your login information, there are ways to prevent them from being able to use it. Most websites have started implementing a security measure called “Two Factor Authentication,” which makes it much harder -- in fact, nearly impossible -- for unauthorized users to get into your accounts, even if they have your passwords.
Two Factor Authentication is a great solution
A great way to protect your email account from being compromised, even when someone has managed to obtain your username and password, is to enable Two Factor Authentication. This adds an extra layer of security to your account by not allowing new devices to connect to your account without a very specific piece of information that only you have.
For example, if someone tries to gain access to your account from an unfamiliar device, a temporary verification code will be sent to your cell phone. Since a hacker probably won’t have access to your cell phone to retrieve the code, he or she won’t be able to proceed.
These codes are scheduled to expire after a certain period of time so a hacker shouldn’t have sufficient time to try all potential combinations.
Knowledge protects your email account
Keeping off of free public WiFi is the best way to dodge the headaches and stress that result from the mess you may have to sort out after you’ve had your online accounts hacked. This might not be possible for some people, however.
But there are other ways to secure your data. The Email Laundry provides a thorough and informative guide for protecting your email account against hackers who try to steal your information.
The guide covers how to prevent your email address from being revealed by bots, how to upgrade to external email security services, and how to implement encryption and avoid phishing scams. The more informed you are about how hackers can steal your data, the easier it is to make smart decisions concerning when and where you might log onto public WiFi.
All it takes is one compromised account to blossom into chaos. Don’t fall into someone’s fake WiFi trap. If you choose to use public internet, always ask the establishment what their official network is called, and if you experience anything suspicious, change your passwords right away on a network you know is safe.