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Caution is Key at Hotspots

posted Oct 24, 2009, 2:07 AM by TexasTechies .org   [ updated Oct 24, 2009, 2:08 AM ]
Summary Learn how to stay safe at an Internet hotspot.


Internet hotspots are everywhere. Unfortunately, most of them aren’t very secure. Learn how to protect yourself when you connect in public.

Easy access, little protection

It can be difficult for hotspot hosts to maintain wireless security. Besides, registration and login requirements tend to defeat the purpose of an "open" Wi-fi network. So, most hotspot hosts employ little or no security measures-which means the trade-off for quick access and easy administration is high exposure to potential threats.

To compound the problem, any wireless connection is inherently less secure than an ordinary network hookup. Unlike data traveling over a physical cable, wireless transmissions pass through the air as radio signals. Those signals can be intercepted by anyone with a receiver and some basic, widely available tools. When the hotspot you’re on doesn’t use encryption, someone who intercepts your data can read whatever you’ve sent-whether it’s a private email or a user name and password combination.

Because hotspots are in public places, people can simply look over your shoulder to engage in old fashioned eavesdropping or even target your laptop for theft.

Criminal means and motives

While curiosity seekers put your privacy at risk, the most serious hotspot dangers are cybercriminals with much more sophisticated means and motives. Even when a hotspot uses security measures, technically savvy hackers have the tools, skills, and patience to work around those protections.

Cybercriminals have learned to use social engineering methods to con hotspot users into divulging sensitive information. Taking a page out of the phishing and pharming book, they set up a wireless network of their own in the vicinity of a legitimate hotspot. By dressing up their network’s name and home page to look like the actual hotspot, they trick you into joining their network. Once you’re on their fake hotspot, they either ask for "new account" information (like credit card numbers or other sensitive information) or redirect you to other fraudulent or virus-laden Web sites.

Security is up to you

With these sorts of dangers lurking-and very few security measures in place-protecting yourself at public hotspots becomes your own responsibility. Here are some things you can do to keep yourself safe:

  • Make sure no one is peering over your shoulder when you log into your operating system, email, IM, or other accounts.

  • Be on the watch for suspicious behavior; never leave your laptop or handheld device unattended.

  • Turn off file sharing when you’re using a hotspot, and try to minimize the amount of sensitive, personal data you store on your laptops and mobile devices. You can usually turn off file sharing from your operating system’s network settings menu.

  • Turn off your wireless card when you’re not using it.

  • Don’t do your online banking or trading at a public hotspot. Save it for a more safe and controlled environment.

  • Make sure you’re on a legitimate hotspot by checking with the host to confirm the network name and connection process.

  • Rather than letting your wireless card automatically join the nearest network, manually select the hotspot when you connect.

  • When you’re on a public hotspot, you have no idea what infections other connected computers might have, or whether there may be a hacker prowling the network. Norton AntiVirus and Norton Internet Security - both from Symantec - protect you from viruses, worms, Trojan horses, and dangerous intruders.

  • Make wise computing decisions. Always avoid using hotspots for important communications or transactions.


Public Internet hotspots pose security risks. It’s up to you to protect your computer, your data, and your privacy with good tools and cautious computing habits.