Use Caution With Wi-Fi

Published, May 13, 2008

Privacy TipFrom
The scenario: You are at the airport waiting for your flight. With time to kill, you are thinking of connecting your laptop to the airport’s Wi-Fi to check your office e-mail, do some personal banking or shop for a gift for your spouse.

However, chances are there is a hacker sitting nearby with a laptop attempting to “eavesdrop” on your computer to obtain personal data that will provide access to your money or to your company’s sensitive information.

There are 68,000 Wi-Fi “hot spots” in the United States at airports, coffee shops, hotels, bookstores, schools and other locations where hundreds or thousands of people pass through every day. While many of these hot spots have secure networks, some do not, according to Supervisory Special Agent Donna Peterson of the FBI’s Cyber Division. And connecting to an unsecure network can leave you vulnerable.

How do hackers grab your personal data out of thin air? One of the most common types of attack is this, according to Agent Peterson: A bogus but legitimate looking Wi-Fi network with a strong signal is strategically set up in a known hot spot with a hacker waiting nearby as users connect their laptops to it. At that point, your computer — and all your sensitive information, including user ID, passwords and credit card numbers — belongs to the hacker. The intruder can mine your computer for valuable data, direct you to phony web pages that look like the ones you frequent and record your every keystroke.

“Another thing to remember,” according to Agent Peterson, “is that the connection between your laptop and the attacker’s laptop runs both ways. While he’s taking information from you, you may be unknowingly downloading viruses, worms and other malware from him.”

What can you do to protect yourself? Agent Peterson’s best advice is: Don’t connect to an unknown Wi-Fi network. But if you must, there are some precautions you should take to reduce the threat:

  • Ensure your laptop security is up to date, with current versions of your operating system, web browser, firewalls, and antivirus and anti-spyware software.
  • Do not conduct financial transactions or use applications like e-mail and instant messaging.
  • Change the default setting on your laptop so you have to manually select the Wi-Fi network you’re connecting to.
  • Turn off your laptop’s Wi-Fi capabilities when you’re not using them.

Related News
Related CHIPS Magazine
Related Resources