When traveling, using Wi-Fi connections instead of data and calling plans can save travelers hundreds of dollars. Relying on public Wi-Fi is sometimes a security risk but there are ways to make sure your personal information is safe.
VPN: How to Use Virtual Private Networks
"Public Wi-Fi is crazy dangerous," said Tài Doick, Fort Gordon Army base and U.S. Cyber Center of Excellence webmaster and social media manager. "Twenty five percent of all public Wi-Fi isn't protected. That means that any data you send over these networks can be seen by everyone. You should never connect to one of these networks."
And while it may seem helpful when businesses post passwords in public view, it means that anyone who logs onto the network can decrypt information being transferred over it, including banking login credentials, social security numbers, phone numbers and more.
Dr. John Krautheim, assistant professor of computer science at Augusta University, said your best defense is to use a Virtual Private Network, or VPN.
"A VPN encrypts all information that leaves your computer," said Krautheim. "The VPN assures that no one within the Wi-Fi network can see your data."
To set up a VPN service you can use a private service that you set up at home or your office like OpenVPN. Some companies provide VPNs for their employees and there are commercial VPN providers that sell a VPN service for a small fee like NordVPN, Private Internet Access and PureVPN. If you're attempting to access Wi-Fi in a hotel room, HotSpotVPN is a good option.
Doick also recommends the following when using a VPN on public Wi-Fi is the only available option:
- enable your built-in firewall to protect yourself from everyone who's on the same router that you are
- use "https," which means the connection is encrypted
- secure your email with an SSL connection; if your email provider supports this, it will add an extra layer of security
- don't use Wi-Fi hotspots without passwords
- don't use hotspots to perform any online banking or to transfer confidential, personal information
Protect Passwords and PINS
We all should know better: storing passwords on your device is a no-no.
"Do not let your apps remember passwords," Krautheim said, "especially important passwords like banking, financial and other private data. If someone does break into your phone, they will not have access to your private accounts."
Another note about apps: In protecting your device from malware, use only the app store approved for your device.
"These stores regularly validate their apps to ensure they do not have malware and meet the requirements for the store," Krautheim said. "Do not 'sideload' apps or 'jailbreak' your phone, as this opens your device to being compromised by malicious software and hackers. Be wary of 'free' apps and check user reviews for reports of suspicious activity."
Protect Your Camera from Stalkers
Doick said to always be on the lookout for cyberstalkers on public Wi-Fi.
"Close to 80 percent of all stalking today is via the internet," Doick said. "Individuals can easily obtain personal and financial information via social media."
Doick recommends securing your webcam or IP camera, as hackers can identify your IP camera's address with a few basic tools. The most often-used is a remote access tool (RAT) like those support technicians use to assist you remotely when fixing a problem.
"To get a RAT on your IP camera, hackers will use phishing, malicious links, Trojan viruses and phony tech-support calls," Doick said. "Once you are tricked into running an executable file, they have access and can do whatever they want. So, use up-to-date security software and be suspicious of random phone calls or emails."
Know How to Identify Scams
It sounds so easy, but a little common sense goes a long way. In short, if it sounds too good to be true it probably is.
"Scams are always changing and there are always new scams," Krautheim said. "Always be vigilant and suspicious of internet and social media postings and unsolicited emails and phone calls. No one is going to send you an email asking for your password or bank account information."
Krautheim also recommends being cautious on all devices including laptops, phones and tablets.
"Do not click on suspicious links in messages, social media and email," he said. "Do not download and install anything [if] you are unsure what it does."
Get Smart About Smartphones
Strides in smartphone technology have made them just as powerful as laptops; but with these advances comes additional pitfalls.
They're just as susceptible—if not more so—to security issues.
"Your phone might have years of text messages and emails with personal information, saved voicemails, pictures of your family, GPS location data, browsing history, notes and more," Doick said. "Every new tablet or smartphone has at least one camera and real-time audio recording capability."
Mobile spying malware has recently targeted both iOS and Android tech by accessing historic data like those years of texts and emails.
If Possible, Don't Take Your Phone at All
If you have the option, Krautheim said, use a "burner" phone with a minimal number of apps as a travel phone overseas as a way to avoid a lost, stolen or confiscated phone during travel.
These pay-as-you-go cell phones, called "burner phones," can be purchased domestically or internationally. With the appropriate SIM card these phones can be used for data connections and calls.
If you are using your regular phone, you should always keep it backed up to the cloud. In addition to keeping your data safe, it allows you to "wipe" the phone before border crossing, to prevent customs agents from examining your phone's contents.
In addition to being backed up, mobile phones should always stay locked when not being used.
"This should be with a six-digit PIN," Krautheim said. "Fingerprint readers are convenient, but it is easier to force you to use your fingerprint than put in a PIN. Laws in some countries provide more protections for PIN-based locks than fingerprint."
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