laptop on a coffee shop table with wi-fi on

The use of public Wi-Fi networks is constantly growing. More and more people have grown into a habit of taking care of any little errands while on the go. As a result, all public places are expected to have a Wi-Fi hotspot nowadays, growing the network even more.

Without free Wi-Fi, the customers of an independent coffee shop would quickly roll up their last cigarette and leave. Just like a fancy restaurant would lose the stiletto-nailed influencers if they couldn’t post pictures of their dinner while it’s getting cold on the plate.

Jokes aside, we’ve all used public Wi-Fi for one thing or another. It’s often the most convenient way to connect to the internet. But you need to be cautious when using such networks, as they are closely associated with a whole slew of cybersecurity risks.

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    What are the dangers of public Wi-Fi?

    Public Wi-Fi networks are not as safe as your home Wi-Fi. Which isn’t a great quality to have, considering that everyone can connect to them. Hackers included. Bad actors often join such networks with malicious intent, and there are multiple ways in which they can harm you.

    Malware infections

    Hackers can install malware straight onto the public Wi-Fi connection, which then spreads to the connected devices. This is made possible because of software vulnerabilities. It can also spread through malicious ads or pop-ups, which install malware once clicked.

    Most likely, you won’t even know about the malware being there. In the meantime, the hacker collects sensitive data, accesses your files, or renders your device unusable. 

    Man-In-The-Middle attacks

    Man-In-The-Middle (MITM) attacks are quite common within free Wi-Fi hotspots. Normally, your traffic travels from your device to the website you’re visiting. A hacker steps in the middle of this connection, hence the name. When this happens, everything you do online is served on a platter to whoever is intercepting the connection. 

    Once again, you would remain completely unaware, all while the hacker steals your passwords and information. The results of such attacks may vary from simple snooping to theft of your banking details or credit card information.

    Malicious hotspots

    When they’re not trying to break established Wi-Fi networks, cybercriminals set up their own hotspots. Also known as evil twin attacks, malicious hotspots are made to look like legitimate sources of free Wi-Fi.

    Hackers typically give unassuming names to such networks, like “Free Wi-Fi” or “[name of local business] Guest Wi-Fi.” Very conveniently, they rarely require a password, making it easy for you to connect. Once online, your information flows straight to the cybercriminal behind the network.

    Snooping and sniffing

    Hackers can get your data even without directly infiltrating your device or getting you to connect to a malicious hotspot. They can infiltrate unsecured public Wi-Fi networks using special software. 

    As the name suggests, they snoop on your data, looking for anything that could benefit them. Login details, credit card information, and other sensitive data are their favorite targets. Needless to say, the results are often very costly for those affected. 

    Unencrypted networks

    Most routers nowadays have encryption capabilities. However, it needs to be enabled through router settings, as encryption is turned off by default. Far from everyone knows about this, so public Wi-Fi networks are often unencrypted.

    An encrypted network turns your traffic into a code. Cracking this code is still possible, but requires much more effort. An unencrypted network does nothing to protect your connection. Hackers can access information on such networks effortlessly and then use it for MITM attacks and other criminal activities.

    How to stay safe on public Wi-Fi

    Considering all the risks associated with using public Wi-Fi, is there any way to use such networks safely? While there is no way to ensure 100% protection whenever you’re online, there are some things you can do to make public Wi-Fi connections safe.

    Use a VPN

    A VPN (Virtual Private Network) should be your primary safety tool whenever you’re online. It encrypts all your traffic before it leaves your device, keeping it safe from prying eyes. 

    Clear your cache and browsing history 

    Bad actors may be snooping on your browsing history and cache, looking for sensitive information. Therefore, it’s best to clear it all before connecting to an unsecured network.

    Turn off auto-connect

    Chances are that the auto-connect feature is active on your device. While very convenient, it can be a gateway to a hacker attack. For your own safety, it’s better to keep your Wi-Fi off when you’re not using it.

    Log out of your accounts

    In some cases, cybercriminals may take control of your device remotely. You wouldn’t want anyone controlling your social media, email, and other accounts, would you? It’s better to log out from any of them before using free Wi-Fi.

    Use 2FA

    Two-factor authentication, or 2FA, is a great way to add an extra layer of security to your logins. That way, the hackers may be unable to connect to your accounts, even if they steal your login details.

    Don’t use the same password everywhere

    Yet another general security tip. Don’t use the same password on all of your accounts. That’s just you making the hacker’s job easy. Switch it up and use different secure passwords on your accounts.

    Update your software

    When software has security loopholes or bugs, its developers make updates to fix them. For the best chance at security, make sure your OS and apps are always up to date.

    Use antivirus software

    Although you should always use antivirus software, it’s even more important on unsecured networks. Hackers might try to slip malware into your device, and antivirus can be the difference between staying safe or losing control over your phone or computer.

    Disable file sharing 

    With file sharing on, anyone connected to the same public Wi-Fi network can easily access your files. Turn this setting off unless you want to share your files with cybercriminals.

    Use a mobile hotspot

    If you can avoid using free Wi-Fi, do so. As long as you have enough mobile data, use your phone as a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot. This is a far safer option for staying connected on the go.

    Signs of an unsafe Wi-Fi network

    phone with Wi-Fi on, surrounded by a password field, a suspicious network name, and HTTP text in red

    Unfortunately, it can be hard to tell a safe network from one that can end up harming you. However, there are some red flags that you should look out for:

    • Does the network have a password?
      Most establishments have Wi-Fi nowadays, but they also tend to protect it with a password. A public Wi-Fi hotspot without a password does not mean it’s unsafe. But you definitely should be cautious connecting to such networks;
    • Does the name look trustworthy?
      Malicious hotspots commonly have two name types. Some are very general, such as “Free Wi-Fi,” “Hotel guest,” etc. Others try to copy the names of established networks. If you feel even a pinch of doubt about the name, stay away;
    • Can you connect to HTTPS websites?
      HTTPS means that a website has an active SSL certificate. Sometimes HTTPS websites can load as HTTP only. This is a dead giveaway that the network you’re connected to is in the middle of a MITM attack. Always double-check if the websites you visit load as HTTPS.

    It’s possible to be safe on public Wi-Fi — fact or fiction?

    There are definitely a lot of risks associated with public Wi-Fi. And yet, millions of people are connected to such networks every day. This creates a perfect realm for cybercriminals to thrive.

    But if you take your cybersecurity seriously, safe use of free Wi-Fi is possible. Just make sure to use all of the tips above to secure your data and avoid being fooled by a devil in disguise.

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    Is it ever safe to use public Wi-Fi?

    You are never 100% safe on a public Wi-Fi network. But there are things you can do to significantly improve your safety on free Wi-Fi:

    • Use a VPN;
    • Clear your cache and browsing history;
    • Turn off auto-connect;
    • Log out of your accounts;
    • Use 2FA;
    • Don’t use the same password everywhere;
    • Update your software;
    • Use antivirus software;
    • Disable file sharing;
    • Use a mobile hotspot.

    Is it safe to use public Wi-Fi for banking?

    Banking is one of the things you should never do on public Wi-Fi. The same goes for online shopping, making payments, or any other activity requiring sensitive information

    No matter how many safety precautions you take, it’s best to do these things on your home network. 

    What are the security risks of using public Wi-Fi?

    There are quite a few risks associated with public Wi-Fi. They all include hackers trying to access and steal your precious personal information. Here are the most common ones:

    • Malware infections;
    • Man-in-the-middle attacks;
    • Malicious hotspots;
    • Snooping and sniffing;
    • Unencrypted networks.