Keep Personal Information Safe with Good Wi-Fi Habits

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If you go to a restaurant, you don’t leave your checkbook, address book or mail on the table for everyone to see. Yet if you – or your child – take advantage of a free Wi-Fi hotspot in that same restaurant, you may be making it all too easy for others to see that same information.

The risks of using unsecured wireless networks were recently emphasized in a warning from the Federal Trade Commission. (The security update and other valuable safety information is available at www.onguardonline.gov.) What the FTC statement didn’t mention is that Wi-Fi security issues have gotten worse because of free programs that are readily available online. These tools make it easy for strangers to hijack an online session so they have access to anything that’s on your computer or your Internet-enabled cell phone. Even unsophisticated hackers can capture passwords, personal information, family photos and contact information. And they can use that information to impersonate you, scam people in your contact list, or access passwords and other protected information.

If you have a wireless network at home, you’ve probably taken security steps such as installing a firewall and using a password. You don’t allow your neighbors to wander into your house to raid the fridge or take a shower, so you don’t want to give them access to your wireless network either.

Things get more complicated when you – or your kids – are mobile and log onto a network away from home. Laptops, notebooks and Wi-Fi-enabled cell phones make it easy to jump online whenever you hit a hotspot, especially during spring break and summer vacation. Libraries, restaurants and other community meeting places often promote the fact that they have free wireless access. Should you take advantage of their generosity? And if you do, how can you protect yourself? Here are a few tips:

* Get a password for the network. A secure network requires a password. Asking for it may be inconvenient, but not getting it is like turning down the key for a hotel room. If your stuff gets stolen, you have no one to blame but yourself. Getting a password will also protect you against “evil twins,” fake websites that mimic the access point for a legitimate network so hackers can intercept passwords, credit card information and anything else you type into your browser.

* Look for the lock. If you decide to use an unsecured network, don’t enter a password, send e-mail, check your calendar or update social networking sites unless you’re using a secure website. These sites can be identified by the “s” that appears after http in the address or by a small padlock in the corner of the screen. Anything you type onto a secure site is instantly encrypted so even if someone intercepts it, it will be unreadable. Because of the popularity of Wi-Fi, more websites are using encryption. Gmail makes it available, and Facebook is considering it. Remember that a secure website protects only the information sent to and from pages that display the lock, so check every page within a website to be sure it is secure.

* Limit financial transactions. Even with secure websites, many experts recommend shopping and banking only from the privacy of your home. While it may be tempting to check your balance in the hotel lobby, be wary about entering credit card numbers or passwords for financial institutions in a public place. Also, never use a public computer for such transactions. It’s easy for criminals to install keyloggers that record everything you type.

* Be smart about your passwords. Use multiple passwords and change them periodically. That way, even if one password is compromised, the hacker won’t have access to all of your online business. Also, don’t store passwords in a file on your portable device. Instead, create passwords you’ll remember by combining numbers with initials from phrases or names that mean something to you. A sports fan might use the initials and numbers from favorite players. A music lover could string together the first letters of the words a song lyric. Avoid using recognizable names or words because they can easily be identified by password-cracking software.

* Choose your spot. When using a public Wi-Fi hotspot, sit in a corner and position your screen so others can’t see what you type. Don’t leave your laptop or cell phone unattended even for a moment.

* Log out. When you finish a Wi-Fi session, log out. Shutting down the network is the best way to keep information safe. Also be sure the auto-connect feature of your device is disabled so it doesn’t seek out and connect to Wi-Fi signals without your permission.

Having Internet access wherever you go is convenient – unless you have to clean up problems caused by identity and information theft. Establishing good Wi-Fi habits for yourself and teaching them to your kids helps your family stay as safe and secure online as in the real world.

Carolyn Jabs has been writing about families and the Internet for almost 20 years. She is the mother of three computer-savvy kids.

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