National Cyber Security Awareness Month – Protecting Yourself over Public WiFi

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The Internet is an amazing thing, and it’s mind-boggling how quickly this “invention” has become a huge part of our lives. It went from being a new-fangled, government-only technology to children carrying internet-enabled tablets to school in only a matter of a few decades. But even though it’s a vital part of life for so many of us and the ability to connect practically anywhere is here, there are some important considerations that all users must take into account. This is why National Cyber Security Awareness Month (or NCSAM) is so important. October is NCSAM and was created by the Department of Homeland Security’s National Cyber Security Alliance to bring awareness to Americans about staying safe online. One big part of staying safe online is knowing the safe way, and the unsafe way, to connect to the Internet in the first place!

Public WiFi connections are widely available throughout most of the US, with everywhere from hotels to fast food restaurants to even campgrounds offering free internet connectivity. The real concern with these hotspots, though, is that users cannot know the level of security that the providing host has in place, and cannot know who may be watching on the other end.

So here are a few handy ways to help protect yourself if you need to connect over public wifi:

  1. Set up your own wall of protection – Your computer will give you some options when you connect to a new hotspot, so be sure to take advantage of the strictest security. When you’re prompted, do not enable “sharing” of files across different computers, which is something that you can safely do at home. Turn on your browser’s firewall in the settings, which will keep out many low-level hackers. Also, sign up for and enable a VPN, or virtual private network, which serves as a “tunnel” for you to get online without others seeing what you’re doing.
  2. Watch those web addresses – When you connect at home with your own safety protocols in place, the Internet is pretty much wide open to you. But anytime you’re connecting in public over someone else’s network, it’s a good idea to avoid websites that do not have an HTTPS or SSL designation in the address at the top of the screen. Heading over to secured web addresses lets you take advantage of both your protective measures and the ones that the websites have in place.
  3. Avoid logging in to sensitive accounts – Do you really need to check your bank balance from a coffee shop? Sometimes, of course, the answer is yes. But unless it’s absolutely necessary to log into sensitive accounts—especially ones that store important information about you as a customer, such as your bank or credit card provider—save the important web surfing for when you’re back over your own secured network.

There’s one more tip that doesn’t seem like it would help you connect safely over public WiFi, and that’s because it is the opposite of connecting! When you’re out shopping, meeting up with friends, or heading anywhere that will offer an abundance of free Internet connections, it’s a safe idea to turn off your mobile device’s WiFi. First of all, it will save your phone or tablet’s battery as the device isn’t trying to constantly connect as you move through the mall or watch a movie. More importantly, anyone who wants to tap into your device and root around for a possible way in can’t get through.

The real take-away from Internet connectivity is that it’s important to understand how your device and connection work so that you can keep your information out of the hands of a hacker or cyberthief. By keeping up with the latest news on your technology, you can make sound decisions to protect your data. This is a great first step to get involved with NCSAM, but an even better way is to tell your friends and family about these helpful tips.

For more information on additional ways to get involved with NCSAM and stay safe online, visit www.staysafeonline.org.

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Eva Velasquez

Eva Velasquez is the President/CEO at the Identity Theft Resource Center, a non-profit organization which serves victims of identity theft. Velasquez previously served as the Vice President of Operations for the San Diego Better Business Bureau and spent 21 years at the San Diego District Attorney’s Office. Eva has a passion for consumer protection and privacy issues and is constantly striving to educate the public about these important topics. She is recognized as a nationwide expert on identity theft and has recently been featured on the Ricki Lake show and MORE magazine, as well as numerous other outlets.