Watch Out for “Free” Wi-Fi Options

A few weeks ago, I was flying home to San Diego from the Bay Area. While waiting at my gate, I noticed a free Wi-Fi option next to the paid option, which I had used before. As someone who loves a good deal, I paused and considered clicking on the unfamiliar Wi-Fi – before deciding the risk wasn’t worth it.

If you are traveling this summer and taking advantage of free Wi-Fi hotspots, make sure to double check before connecting your laptop, tablet, or smartphone. Scammers use fake Wi-Fi hotspots to steal personal and financial information, and they can even use it to gain access to your device.

It works like this: you’re at a coffee shop, airport, hotel lobby, or other public place, and you want to connect to Wi-Fi. You search for connections and find one nearby. It may be labeled something generic like “Free Public Wi-Fi” or include the name of the establishment that you’re at. They may look harmless, but don’t connect. You might be taking a risk!

Some fake Wi-Fi hotspots claim to be charging a small fee to use the connection. After a user connects, they are prompted to enter credit card information. Of course, this info is shared with the scammer and then they can use your card too!

In another version, a hacker is able to insert themselves between your computer and the Wi-Fi connection. This happens when the Wi-Fi is unsecured. Once you’re connected, everything you do online – such as make a purchase or log into an account – is now transmitted through the scammer’s computer. They can now access any passwords, credit card information, and other data you’ve entered online. This is why BBB warns that you should never online bank or enter personal or financial information while on public Wi-Fi – better safe than sorry!

Here are some suggestions to safely use public Wi-Fi connections:

  • Be sure you are using the correct Wi-Fi connection: If you are in a place that offers free Wi-Fi, verify the name of the connection before joining. Scammers often set up fake hotspots next to real ones.
  • Be careful how you use public Wi-Fi: When using a hotspot to log into an account or make a purchase, be sure the site is fully encrypted (Use “https”).
  • Consider using a VPN:If you regularly access public Wi-Fi, use a virtual private network (VPN). VPNs encrypt traffic between your computer and the Internet, even on unsecured networks. Research VPN providers online, especially at org.
  • Always use antivirus software and a firewall.Protect your computer (and some cell phones) by using anti-virus software and a firewall from a trustworthy company.
  • Use good password sense:Protect yourself from hacking by using strong passwords and creating a different password for each account. Learn tips for password safety at org/passwords.

To learn more about scams, check out BBB’s scam tips at bbb.org/scamtips. To report a scam and see scams happening across North America, go to BBB Scam Tracker at bbb.org/scamtracker.

Rebecca is the Community Outreach Coordinator for BBB serving the San Francisco Bay Area and Northern Coastal California. She works to advance BBB’s vision of an ethical marketplace where buyers and sellers can trust each other. She does this by developing content such as blog posts, press releases, newspaper columns, and PSAs to educate businesses and consumers. Rebecca also represents BBB at community events.

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