It’s that time of year again, when thousands of taxpayers flock to public libraries to get free tax advice and help filing their returns. That kind of assistance can make doing your taxes a lot less taxing. The convenience of using the library’s free public WiFi during the process is also appealing, but it could end up costing you plenty.
You might be wondering how we know for sure that public library hotspots are exposed. We know because we sent one of our employees to the New York Public Library to see if he could “listen in” to the information being sent over its public WiFi network.
As we’ve mentioned before, WiFi signals are just radio waves. That means anyone with a laptop or mobile device and free, easily accessible software can access all information being sent over a public WiFi network.
Public WiFi Leaves You Completely Exposed
In this case, our employee used a variety of readily available tools to observe risky online behavior of nearby users. The primary tool used was a proprietary program that only lists the names of the websites that people were visiting.
What he uncovered on the library’s public WiFi was astonishing: People were accessing their financial records, filling out residential applications and apartment leases, checking their email and accessing social media websites, among other things.
Everything these hotspots users were doing online could have been captured and stolen by even a novice hacker, including their login information, financial data and credit card numbers.
In case you still doubt it, here is what the New York Public Library’s disclaimer says about using its WiFi hotspot:
“When using the Library’s wireless network, please keep the following in mind: Wireless access is provided on an “as is” basis at your own risk. Information passing through the Library’s wireless network is not secure and may be monitored, captured or altered by others. The Library staff is not able to provide technical assistance and assumes no responsibility for changes in your wireless device configuration, security breaches and changes to data files from connecting to the Library’s wireless network.”
Cybercrimes can be committed with almost no risk of detection at WiFi hotspots. That’s because it’s nearly impossible to monitor how they are being used. Even the Federal Trade Commission has urged consumers to protect themselves.
E-filing is safe and easy. But use caution: It’s best to do your taxes on your secure home WiFi network. Even if you are using your own laptop, e-filing on a public WiFi hotspot – no matter where it is – leaves you vulnerable. A hacker could hijack your passwords, your Social Security number and your financial data.
Remember, if you can connect to a WiFi hotspot, so can an identity thief.
Protect Your Sensitive Information When You E-file Your Taxes
- If you use a library computer or another nonprofit organization’s computer to e-file, ask whether it’s connected to a secure network or to a public WiFi hotspot.
- If you use your own computer on a WiFi hotspot, make sure it’s patched, your firewall is turned on and your security software is up to date.
- Protect your passwords by making them long and strong. Use different ones for each site and don’t automatically save them.
- Turn off printer and file sharing options.
- Disable features that automatically connect you to any available wireless network. This will prevent you from accidentally connecting to a stranger’s computer or to fake WiFi hotspot designed to steal your information.
- Turn off your WiFi connection when you’re not using it.
- Use a VPN like PRIVATE WiFi to protect your sensitive information whenever you use a WiFi hotspot. VPNs encrypt the data traveling to and from your computer and make you invisible to identity thieves.