When you venture out into public spaces—like coffee shops, airports, and hotels—you are sharing more than just elbow room. Connecting your devices to a public Wi-Fi spot, the same one possibly hundreds of other people are using, could put your personal information at risk. Take the following precautions so you can enjoy the convenience of public Wi-Fi networks safely.

Turn off automatic connectivity

Most smartphones, laptops, tablets, and other internet-enabled devices have automatic connectivity settings, which allow you to connect effortlessly from one hotspot to the next. Unfortunately, this convenience comes at the cost of your security; it often connects your device to networks you would not otherwise use. Maintain control over which networks you join by keeping these settings turned off—especially when heading to unfamiliar places.

Turn off Bluetooth connectivity

Bluetooth connectivity allows various devices to communicate with each other. At home, that’s great for managing and connecting a variety of smart devices, like speakers, thermostats, lights, security systems, and so on. However, leaving Bluetooth on in public places can pose risks to your online security. A hacker may look for open signals and gain access to your device, so keep this function off when you leave a private Wi-Fi network like your home or office.

Connect to secure networks when possible

Many Wi-Fi hotspots don’t encrypt the information you send over the internet. If a network doesn’t require a password, it’s probably not secure. Usually the network will provide information at login about whether it is WPA (for Wi-Fi Protected Access) or WPA2 protected.

If you’re unable to connect to a secured network, at least make sure the connection requires a login or registration of some kind.

Use secure sites

A secure website will begin with “https” rather than “http.” The “s” stands for “secure,” and basically ensures that your information is encrypted so that it can be transmitted safely. Reputable merchants and online banks will always use this type of encryption on their sites. Some websites use encryption only on the sign-in page, but if any part of your session isn’t encrypted, your entire account could be vulnerable, so look for “https” on every page you visit.

Take time to sign out and log off

Particularly if you’re in a hurry, it can be easy to remain signed in to your account or a public network unintentionally. But regardless of whether your car is done or your flight is boarding, if you’ve been using public Wi-Fi, take the time to sign out of whatever site you were on. Don’t agree to stay permanently signed in to any account, log off of the Wi-Fi network, and remember to close the browser.

Keep track of your devices

Don’t leave your laptop, tablet, or smartphone unattended in a public place. Besides the fact that you don’t want to be out the cost of replacement, keeping your devices secure helps you keep your personal information secure. After all, working on a secure network won’t stop someone from taking your property or sneaking a peek at your device over your shoulder.

Likewise, be aware of who is behind and around you when you’re shopping or working on your laptop. Something as simple as entering your credit card details or a PIN number in view of a would-be thief can end up compromising your personal information.

Consider using a VPN

If you regularly access online accounts through Wi-Fi hotspots, consider using a VPN (for virtual private network). VPNs encrypt the data sent between your computer and the internet, even on unsecured networks. You can purchase a personal VPN account from a VPN service provider. Some employers create VPNs to provide secure, remote access for their employees. Moreover, VPN options are available for mobile devices that encrypt information you send through mobile apps.

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Last Edited: December 4, 2017