Is it Safe to Use a Hotel's Free Wi-Fi Service?Kim Boatman
These days, it's very common to find free or inexpensive Wi-Fi connections at many hotels when you travel. While Internet service for free is nice, it's hard to know if a public Wi-Fi connection is secure -- at even the big chain hotels.
So, before you take a chance and trust a hotel’s Wi-Fi service, make sure you take these precautionary steps:
- Set up good defenses.
Your computer's firewall and a strong antivirus software provide your first line of defense, says Mark D. Rasch, co-founder of Secure IT Experts, which advises businesses about security. Your firewall permits or denies traffic to and from your computer, so it’s important to make sure it’s turned on.
If you're using Windows, click on the START menu, then click on the control panel. Click on security center (look for the multi-colored shield). A green indicator means your firewall is on. If you use a Mac, open System Preferences and click Sharing, then click Firewall. You'll also need to make sure your security software is updated and run daily scans while you’re traveling.
- Be careful to connect to the correct network.
Often, free hotel Wi-Fi requires a password or reference number that is provided to you by the hotel upon check-in. Make sure you're indeed connecting to the hotel's Wi-Fi and not an Evil Twin, which is a look-alike connection designed to trick you, then gather your information for possible identity theft or other mischief. Look-alike sites might use a name similar to the hotel’s name, so ask at the front desk if you're confused before you log on.
- Avoid file-sharing.
Steer clear of file-sharing sites such as Lime Wire and Morpheus, which offer free downloads of software, advises David Callisch, vice president of marketing for Ruckus Wireless, a company that installs wireless networks in hotels.
"Avoid doing things where two computers can talk to each other," he says. File-sharing sites can leave your computer vulnerable to malicious attacks, such as viruses or spyware.
- Disconnect when not in use.
Minimize your risks by disconnecting from the network when you're not actively using the Wi-Fi.
- Avoid financial transactions.
If you can avoid making online purchases or accessing your bank account from the free Wi-Fi connection, it's a good idea, says Rasch. If you must conduct financial business online, make sure the site is protected through "https," a protocol that provides a secure connection. A secure website will have the "https" rather than "http" in the Web address and a lock symbol in the bottom right corner.
- Use a VPN.
If you're traveling for work, ask if your company uses a virtual private network (VPN). A VPN is a computer network that provides employees with remote access to company servers. These networks use data-scrambling technologies which ensure secure access to company data through an Internet connection. In a VPN, your online activity will be encrypted so that the bad guys can't see what you're doing. If you're traveling for personal reasons, you can also purchase a VPN service. Companies such as HotSpotVPN even allow you to purchase their service in small increments of time, such as a few days.
- Change passwords frequently.
Malicious types are often "sniffing" or looking for password information over unsecured networks, says Callisch. You might not think it's a big deal if someone grabs your user ID and password for Facebook. After all, the worst they might do is change your status or delete a few friends, right? Don’t be so sure, Callisch cautions.
Many of us retain the same passwords and user IDs for many online activities. Too often, we use the same password for Facebook as we do for our online banking. "Take a reasonable amount of precaution and change your password all the time," Callisch says. Most of us aren't going to remember multiple passwords, but we should be able to keep track of changing passwords, he says.
If you follow these steps, you can connect to that hotel Wi-Fi without worries, says Callisch. That's one less reason for you to loose sleep while on the road.
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