This summer, countless super-fans and tech-insiders will travel to major events like Comic-Con and Dreamforce. While their spirits may be high, the mood is even brighter for malicious hackers about to score big. Accessing Wi-Fi on planes, in hotel rooms, and on public networks makes users vulnerable to bad actors seeking sensitive information.

When traveling, it's easy to take advantage of public Wi-Fi to access your bank account, use a transportation service, or log into email or social media accounts. However, many people may not realize that public Wi-Fi networks don't require any authentication before users can connect to them, giving hackers easy access to unsecured devices on these networks.

Why Public Wi-Fi Is a Cybercriminal's Goldmine

According to an analysis by Kaspersky Labs, 24.7 percent of Wi-Fi hotspots don't use encryption, leaving users vulnerable to hackers.There are many ways hackers target users on public Wi-Fi, such as:

  • Setting up Rogue Wi-Fi Hotspots: Cybercriminals frequently set up rogue hotspots and give them names that resemble legitimate open hotspots. When people connect to a rogue hotspot, the cybercriminals can inject malware on their devices or intercept their data.
  • Launching Man-in-the-Middle (MITM) Attacks: In a MITM attack, hackers insert themselves between the user and the connection point. This means that the hackers can intercept any personal information you send over the internet, including your emails, credit card information, and login credentials. They can also see your browsing activities, your account information, and any purchases you make online.
  • Distributing Malware: Even if you use a VPN, cybercriminals can also distribute malware over unsecured Wi-Fi networks. This is especially true if you allow file-sharing across the network, which gives hackers a means to easily plant malware on your device. In some cases, cybercriminals hack the connection point so that when users connect, a pop-up window appears offering a software upgrade. When the user clicks on the window, the malware gets installed on their device. You should only connect to networks you trust.

To prevent data interception and increase privacy, always use a virtual private network (VPN) when you connect to public Wi-Fi networks to encrypt your internet traffic.

What Is a VPN and How Does It Protect You?

A VPN is a connection method that provides users with additional layers of security when they connect to a network. It encrypts users' data and transmits their internet traffic through a secure connection. This allows users to initiate anonymous browsing sessions on any network, making it much more difficult for hackers to intercept their data.

In addition, connecting to a VPN hides users' true IP addresses so that their exact location can't be traced. For instance, you may live in California, but when you connect to your VPN, your location can change depending on where your VPN server is based. This protects your privacy and makes it harder for third parties to track you.

Wi-Fi Security Best Practices for Your Summer Travels

Given the risks of free public Wi-Fi, it's essential to use the necessary security practices before you travel. Here are some of the best ways to keep yourself safe when using public Wi-Fi:

  1. Use a VPN to Secure Your Connection: Using a VPN is the most effective way to protect yourself on public Wi-Fi. Installing the VPN and activating it before you connect to a public Wi-Fi hotspot allows your device the capability to keep your data safe from hackers.
  2. Avoid Logging into Password-Protected Websites Without a VPN: If you need to access your email, banking or social accounts over public Wi-Fi, be sure to activate your VPN before doing so, especially for websites that are not using their own encryption (see HTTPS bullet below).
  3. Avoid Automatically Connecting to Wi-Fi Hotspots: Many devices will automatically connect to Wi-Fi networks you've used in the past without asking permission. For security purposes, it's advisable to remove these networks using the "Forget This Network" option on your device after using them.
  4. Only Visit Websites With HTTPS in the URL: Websites that use the HTTPS protocol encrypts communication between the web server and your browser, which results in a much higher level of security.
  5. Enable Two-Factor Authentication on Your Accounts: Two-factor authentication (2FA) requires users to provide an on-demand, unique code when logging in to their accounts, in addition to their username and password. The code itself is usually delivered via text message or email, making it much more difficult for a hacker to impersonate you and access your account.

By implementing these security practices, you can greatly reduce your risk of compromise while using public Wi-Fi this summer.

Published on: May 16, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.