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6 Public Wi-Fi Safety Tips

Public Wi-Fi is as much a selling point as free coffee refills, but when it comes to tapping your devices into a public resource, it pays to be a little cautious. Here are six ways to keep safe when using public Wi-Fi.

Verify the Wi-Fi Name

You’re sitting in Starbucks and you see “Free Starbucks Wi-Fi” on your list. That must be the free Wi-Fi offered by the store, right? Well, maybe not. It’s pretty easy for a hacker to stage what’s called a “man in the middle” attack and set up their own free Wi-Fi, giving it whatever name they like. Then they can gather all kinds of data from your computer or Smartphone.

Tip: Always check on the name of the store’s Wi-Fi with the store’s employees.

Think Twice About Typing Passwords

We like mobile banking as much as the next person, but there are some things that shouldn’t happen over pubic Wi-Fi. When you use Wi-Fi at your home, you’re trusting yourself to maintain network security. When you use it at a coffee shop or an airport, you’re trusting the coffee shop or airport (and all of their employees) with your security. Do you really want your password going through their network? How much do you trust these strangers?

Tip: Don’t use public Wi-Fi to do things like online banking or anything you consider would involve private or sensitive information. 

Turn Off Sharing

When you’re on your home network, it’s convenient to share files across computers, phones, printers, and more. When you’re in public, it’s best to keep the sharing to a minimum. After all, you don’t want to make it easy for someone to snoop through your stuff. In Windows, you want to open the Control Panel, go to Network and Internet, then Network and Sharing Center, then Choose Change Advanced Sharing Settings. Here, you can turn off file sharing, printer sharing, and network discovery. If you use a Mac, go to System Preferences, then Sharing, and make sure all the boxes are unticked.

Tip: Before connecting, make sure you turn off all sharing on your machine.

Turn Off Wi-Fi When You’re Not Using It

When you have Wi-Fi enabled all the time on your personal computer or, more likely, your Smartphone, your device constantly searches for networks to join. This isn’t ideal, as you don’t want your device making contact with every network pass by going about your day. As a bonus, turning off Wi-Fi can save you some battery life (depending on your phone).

Tip: When you’re done surfing, switch your Wi-Fi off.

Use Your Phone as a Hot Spot

If you really need to connect to the Internet and really don’t trust the public Wi-Fi around you, rely on your Smartphone. It’s pretty easy to set up (instructions for different types of phones can be found here), and it can give you piece of mind. Keep in mind, though, this can eat up data very quickly.

Tip: When in doubt, it’s better to rely on your service provider than public Wi-Fi you don’t trust.

Forget the Wi-Fi When You’re Done

Don’t want to connect to the public Wi-Fi at the corner coffee store every time you pass by? It’s a simple matter of configuring your device to forget previous Wi-Fi networks. Windows gives you the option to uncheck “Connect Automatically” before you connect to a network. Alternatively, you can go to Control Panel, then Network and Sharing Center, then the network name, then Wireless Properties, and then uncheck “Connect automatically when this network is in range”.

On a Mac, go to System Preferences, then Network. In the Wi-Fi section, go to Advanced. Then uncheck “Remember networks this computer has joined”. Mac also lets you remove individual networks by selecting the network name and then the minus button below the network list.

In Android, you can enter your Wi-Fi network list, select the network name, and then select “Forget Network”.

On iOS, go to Settings, then Wi-Fi networks, then the “i” icon next to the network’s name, then press “Forget This Network”. On iOS, you should also enable the Ask To Join Networks feature, which is in the Wi-Fi networks settings.

Tip: Don’t let your device attempt to connect without your express consent—make sure it forgets networks.

Bottom Line

It pays to be a little cautious when it comes to pubic Wi-Fi. Fortunately, a few extra steps can keep you protected.