Public Wi-Fi hotspots are everywhere. From coffee shops and restaurants to stores and public parks, it’s easier than ever before to stay connected while you’re out and about.

Whether you’re working remotely, updating your social media page or just surfing the web, these free services are great, as long as you understand the common threats and ways to protect yourself. This can range from using public Wi-Fi only for non-sensitive activity (no banking!) to setting up a “virtual private network” on your device – which is easier than you may think.  

One example of a threat is fake Wi-Fi hotspots. This is when bad guys set up a network with a name that looks legitimate. It may be very similar to the legitimate hotspot name. For example, a coffee shop’s public network name could be “Coffee Shop Wi-Fi.” A bad guy may create another hotspot in the area called “Coffee Shop Wi-Fi 1.” If you’re not paying attention, it would be very easy to fall for the fake and connect to the bad guy’s network. Then all your information is at risk.

Another threat may come from connecting to legitimate, but unsecured, public networks. In this case, the bad guy may also connect and be able to eavesdrop on what you’re doing online. He can do this by finding your computer on the network and linking in. That means everything you do is exposed.

In either case, the bad guy can steal your private information and use it to do bad things. Imagine if you were shopping online and entered your credit card number. In these scenarios, the bad guy can monitor everything you’re doing on your device, getting your personal information without you knowing.

So, how can you protect yourself?

  • Make sure you connect to the right Wi-Fi network. When joining an open network, confirm and double-check the name of the Wi-Fi network. Watch out for other networks with alternate spellings or added numbers.
  • Be wary of networks without passwords. Many hotspots require a password. This does not ensure security, but it does add a layer of security and most bad guys do not put password-protection on their fake networks.
  • Don’t do sensitive activities on public Wi-Fi networks. Avoid online shopping, banking or other activities involving sensitive data while connected to an open network. Don’t give the bad guys the opportunity to steal anything valuable, like your Social Security number or credit card information.
  • Don’t download or upload on public Wi-Fi networks. If you can, wait to share documents or download content when you are on your own safe and secured network.
  • Consider using a virtual private network (VPN). Adding a VPN creates an extra layer of security by establishing an encrypted tunnel inside of a public network, preventing bad guys from snooping on your smartphone, tablet or laptop.

A service such as AT&T’s ActiveArmor Mobile Security Advanced offers VPN capability to help keep you safe when using public Wi-Fi. This app also alerts you to risky Wi-Fi networks nearby and gives instructions on how to disconnect from them.  To learn more visit here.

Finally, practice good cybersecurity habits, regardless of whether or not you connect to a public network. See our top five tips here. It’s always better to stay private while in public.