Public Wi-Fi isn’t always as secure as you’d hope. Follow these steps to stay secure online on the go.

By Catherine McNally
December 17, 2019

Free public Wi-Fi—think the networks you use at airports, hotels, and even restaurants and coffee shops—can seem like a blessing. After all, no one wants to sit and twiddle their thumbs during a two-hour layover. But public Wi-Fi comes with risks, and if you’re not careful, you can leave your information open to hackers.

Security software publisher Kaspersky notes that hackers can position themselves between you and the network you’re connected to. This allows them to snap up any information you send online, including emails, financial information, usernames, and passwords. Unsecured public Wi-Fi networks can also be used by hackers to target your laptop, smartphone, or tablet with malware.

The best way to keep hackers’ hands off your information? Never do any of these seven things while you’re connected to public Wi-Fi.

Never use a Wi-Fi network without checking that it’s legit.

You’re sipping on your venti vanilla latte, checking the latest news, and catching up on work emails using the Starbucks Wi-Fi. At least, you think it’s the Starbucks Wi-Fi, but hackers sometimes create bogus Wi-Fi hotspots with names similar to the location that’s offering free Wi-Fi. This allows them to intercept your private information. The best way to make sure you’re on the right network is to check with an employee to get the connection name, IP address, and password.

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Don’t use an unsecured network if a secured one is available.

You know you’re on a secured Wi-Fi network if you need a password to connect, have to agree to legal terms, or must create an account. Some secured networks also require you to pay a fee or purchase something in the store before employees will share the password. This may seem like a hassle, but it’s well worth it to connect to a secure Wi-Fi connection.

Just say no to online shopping.

If you like to do a little online shopping while you sit around at the airport, you should wait to pull the trigger on that purchase. An unsecured Wi-Fi connection means that when you log in to shop and type in your credit card info to make a purchase, you’re also potentially giving your info to hackers who might be tapped into the same connection. That hot deal on a new pair of headphones or 24-hour flash sale will have to wait until you’re able to shop through a secure network.

Avoid checking your bank account.

For the same reasons you want to wait to online shop, you also want to avoid checking on any financial sites or apps while on public Wi-Fi. Dealing with a stolen credit card is a hassle even when you’re at home, let alone while you’re using hotel Wi-Fi on a trip.

Of course, sometimes we have to check our bank accounts while we’re on a trip or at work. If you’re stuck in one of these situations, you can always use your cell phone’s data, or 4G network, to connect to the internet. While cellular networks aren’t completely safe, they’re harder to hack than Wi-Fi.

You should also set up additional layers of security for any financial accounts. Two-factor authentication makes it even harder for thieves to access your information—and all you have to do is check a text message or authenticator app for a personalized code.

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Don’t log in to websites that start with http://.

Sometimes we absolutely have to log into an account. Maybe you need to re-download your boarding pass, or your boss sent you an urgent email that needs a response ASAP. When you log into your account, TripSavvy recommends making sure the website address begins with “https://” or displays a lock symbol in the site address bar. This means the site is encrypted and secured.

It goes without saying that if a site uses plain old “http://” with no “s,” you don’t want to enter any usernames, passwords, or personal information there.

Don’t leave your phone, laptop, or other wireless device unattended.

Some information thieves try to steal your information the old-fashioned way: They’ll try to peer over your shoulder to see if they can spot personal information while you’re using your laptop or phone. Luckily, it’s easy to foil these password peepers. Just like you would at an ATM, shield your keyboard or phone screen whenever you type in your PIN or login info.

Other times, they’ll target a phone or laptop that’s been left open while the owner steps away for a minute. If the barista calls your name, you have to take a quick bathroom break, or need to return a magazine to the display, close and lock your laptop or phone—and take it with you.

Don’t leave your Bluetooth on when you don’t need it.

This tip has less to do with public Wi-Fi, but it’s worth knowing all the same. Your Bluetooth connection can also be compromised, as found out by a research team that tested security vulnerabilities in Bluetooth connections.

During their test, the researchers were able to “listen [to], or change the content of, nearby Bluetooth communication.” So someone can listen to your hands-free conversation in your car? You’d probably want to avoid that.

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Recap: How to stay safe on public Wi-Fi

The bottom line is that you should question everything while you’re on public Wi-Fi—or any Wi-Fi connection you don’t own. With just a few easy steps, you can protect your online information from would-be thieves.

And if you’d like to go a step further, you can always use a virtual private network (VPN) and install malware scanners. (Use paid options, since free VPN software has been known to come from shady sources.) Consider Norton Secure VPN, Norton 360 Deluxe (includes a VPN and full security suite), or Malwarebytes.