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Identity Theft & Wi-Fi

Hopping from various Wi-Fi hotspots in universities, libraries, hotels, coffee shops, airports, and other public places is extremely convenient, but it's not always safe. Generally, public wireless networks don't provide secure connections, and any information you send through websites or mobile apps connected to these public hotspots could be accessed by someone else—and put you at risk for identity theft.

Encryption & Wireless Protection

Simply put, encryption means that information sent over a wireless network is scrambled, or translated into a secret code. Thus, it's best to send private information over a wireless network only when the information is encrypted.

There are a couple of ways to use encrypted information:

  • Use an encrypted website.
    • An encrypted website protects ONLY the information you send to and from that website.
    • You can tell if a website is encrypted if the URL address begins with https:// —the “s” stands for “secure”. Make sure each page of the website begins with “https”; if only the home page or sign-in begins shows the secure certificate, then only that page is encrypted.
  • Use a secure wireless network.
    • A secure wireless network protects ALL the information you send using that network.
    • Generally, secure wireless networks require a WPA or WPA2 password; however, experts suggest trusting only WPA2 passwords, as they replaced WPA passwords years ago.
    • Because it can be difficult to determine if the public wireless network you're using is secure, it might be safest to use encrypted websites only while on public Wi-Fi.

Encryption & Mobile Apps

Maybe you aren't accessing public Wi-Fi via a computer or laptop, but instead you're using the apps on your smartphone.

Because they're not actual websites, mobile apps generally don't show safety indicators like “https” and some researchers believe apps aren't that successful at properly encrypting information.

So, if you're in a public place and you absolutely must complete sensitive transactions using your smartphone (such as paying a bill or making a credit card purchase), some experts suggest:

  • Skipping the Wi-Fi and enabling your phone plan's data network.
  • Accessing the company's mobile website rather than the mobile app.
    • You can tell if you're on the website if you can see the web address.
    • Remember, make sure the address begins with “https.”

Tips for Using Public Wi-Fi

Take the use of unencrypted data and unsecure websites and couple it with extremely easy-to-use hacking software, and you could be dealt an identity theft nightmare.

Hackers can use your personal information, login names and passwords, contact information, private documents, and even photos to virtually take over your life.

Therefore, it's extremely important to keep these tips in mind when using public Internet access:

  • Make sure every website you visit is fully encrypted. Look for the “https” at the beginning of the website's address and the beginning of every page that's part of the website.
  • Always log out of every account—whether it's your bank account or a social media profile—before leaving the area.
  • Use different passwords. This way, if one password is breached, the hacker won't be able to access other accounts that have different passwords.
  • When you visit a website, pay attention to all warnings of fraudulent or malicious programs. Leave the website when you see these, and make sure to keep your computer's security software up to date.
  • When you're not at home, change your phone's settings so that it doesn't automatically search for and connect to public Wi-Fi.
  • Look for browser add-ons or plug-ins that force your browser to use encryption; however, don't just trust that it's working; always look for the “https” at the beginning of the website address.
  • If you regularly use public internet access, consider setting up a virtual private network (VPN). A VPN is like a secret tunnel through which you can use the Internet away from prying eyes. These days, VPNs are available to the general public from a variety of providers, for a fee.
  • Again, be smart with your smart phone. Use your data network instead of Wi-Fi, or skip the company's mobile app and visit the website directly.

If You Suspect Identity Theft

As you've no doubt concluded by now, using an unsecured wireless network puts you at risk for identity theft.

If you suspect you're a victim of ID theft—or you just want to take extra steps for identity theft prevention—refer to our guides to Identity Theft Warning Signs and Identity Theft & Your Rights, where you'll learn tips on identity theft protection and steps to take if someone's stolen your identity.

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