We've all been guilty of making this mistake, and probably more than just once. Whenever we're on the go, we're always looking for a free Wi-Fi hotspot. That way we won't be forced to tap into our precious wireless data.
But did you know those public Wi-Fi networks can actually be quite dangerous? According to the 2017 Norton Wi-Fi Risk Report, around 92 percent of Americans openly admit that they're willing to put their personal data at risk as long as it means they have access to the internet.
While on public Wi-Fi, 62 percent of those surveyed have accessed their personal email account. In addition, 56 percent have logged into their social media profile, and 32 percent have actually pulled up their banking or credit card details.
A whopping 19 percent admitted to entering in personally identifiable information such as their date of birth, social security number, home address, etc. And, let's be honest - in reality, that number is probably a lot higher.
When asked the question, "Why take the chance of being hacked?" it appeared that the vast majority didn't fully understand the risks.
Almost 70 percent of those surveyed claimed they didn't believe their private data was unsafe when using a public Wi-Fi network, and 41 percent admitted that they really don't know what a secure network is.
To make matters even worse, the survey found that our obsession with being constantly connected was contributing to the problem. Nearly 60 percent of the participants stated they couldn't stand to be offline for more than a few minutes, and 75 percent shared that public Wi-Fi access contributed to their decision when choosing which businesses to visit. In some cases, this obsession was so strong that 12 percent fessed up to guessing or hacking passwords in order to gain access to a Wi-Fi network.
What are the risks?
Public Wi-Fi is open to everyone, which makes it a prime target for hackers. And every device is susceptible, no matter if it's your laptop, tablet or smartphone.
The scariest part about online security threats these days is that your device could be infected without any signs. Take for example the hacker group that was recently discovered spying on hotel guests through the hotel's Wi-Fi network. These hackers went undetected for years and were just barely discovered. Do you think they're the only group out there that's trying to steal the data of unsuspecting people using public Wi-Fi networks?
The truth is, when you're sharing a Wi-Fi network with complete strangers, you don't know who's really trustworthy. The person sitting next to you with his or her laptop could be watching everything you do. Or, they could have created what's called a "honey pot network," which looks like a real Wi-Fi network of a business but is designed to trick you into handing over your personal information.
Is there a safe way to use public Wi-Fi?
The best way to protect yourself from the threat of spies and hackers on public Wi-Fi is to not connect to any network that isn't yours. But, the reality is, most of us will still keep using public networks anyway.
So, if that's the case, then it's critical that you take these steps whenever you're joining a shared network. If you don't, you could be willingly handing over the information hackers need for identity theft, credit card fraud, phishing scams and even tax fraud.
1. Be skeptical of the network
Just because a public Wi-Fi network pops up and asks if you want to join, doesn't mean it's legitimate. If you're at a coffee shop, hotel, or another place of business, ask an employee for the specific name of their Wi-Fi network. Scammers will sometimes create networks called "Coffee Shop" or "Hotel Guest" to make you believe you're connecting to the real thing when, actually, you're not.
2. Don't click links you don't recognize
Scammers are skilled at making links seem enticing so you'll fall for their trick, but there are some signs that should make you think twice before you click. First, if something makes an outrageous claim or sounds too good to be true, it's probably not real. Second, if you're prompted to download something, you probably should avoid it. Here's a little trick. To see what's hiding behind a hyperlink, see what shows up in the bottom left-hand corner of your screen when you hover your mouse over it.
3. Avoid certain websites
Unless you're planning to do some general web surfing, it's probably best to avoid public Wi-Fi altogether. Ask yourself, if someone were looking over your shoulder would you access a particular account or website. If that were the case, you probably wouldn't check your credit card statement or log in to your Amazon Prime account. When using public Wi-Fi, always assume that somebody out there is watching.
Here's a good rule of thumb: If it requires a username and password to log in, you should only access that site from your own private network.
Using these tips will help you stay safe while browsing on shared Wi-Fi. We also recommend that you browse anonymously by using a virtual private network (VPN). Click here for more information about VPNs, and see how the top services compare.