New York City’s Payphone Hotspots Could Be a Payday for Hackers

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NYC payphone WiFiIn the age of smartphones, why would anyone want to use an outdated New York City payphone? To connect to a free WiFi hotspot, of course! That’s what NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio is counting as he embarks on a bold plan to transform the Big Apple’s payphones into one of the largest public WiFi networks in the country.

The city plans to replace those relics of 20th Century communication with up to 10,000 “public communications structures” that would provide free WiFi and free 911 and 311 calls. It says payphone hotspots will be a boon for freelancers, job seekers, small businesses, and residents who can’t afford broadband services at home. Politicians and public interest and trade groups are already jumping on the hotspot bandwagon, calling the Mayor’s proposal “exciting,” “innovative,” and “cutting edge.”

The Hidden Cost of Free WiFi Hotspots

But wait a minute! Is anybody thinking about security which is non-existent at WiFi hotspots? So far, the only issue that’s been raised is that government and corporations would be able to collect hotspot users’ sensitive information. But there’s an even bigger risk. A hacker close to a payphone hotspot would have no trouble sniffing users’ sensitive information – everything from email and banking log-ins to credit card and Social Security numbers. Even worse, he could set up an Evil Twin, a fake WiFi hotspot designed to look like the real one. When an unsuspecting victim connects to it, the hacker could grab sensitive information and confidential company data within the first minute with virtually no risk of getting caught.

Data Shows Users Spent a Long Time Connected to Payphone WiFi

Data from New York City’s 2012 Public Pay Telephone WiFi pilot project shows that many users stayed connected to payphone WiFi for long periods of time. That means they ran a big risk of having their sensitive information stolen and used to commit identity fraud. If you think that risk is too small to worry about, consider this: A 2012 report from Javelin Strategy & Research found that one out of seven smartphone users was a victim of identity fraud. On top of that, almost one out of ten tablet owners was an ID fraud victim, according to Javelin’s 2013 report. When it comes to your chances of becoming a crime victim, those are pretty terrible odds.

New York City’s plan to reinvent payphones to include public WiFi is a laudable goal. But without protection, bringing the Internet to everyone could also mean bringing the risk of identity fraud to everyone.

Remember, every time you connect to a WiFi hotspot, your personal information and your company’s information is public and free for the taking.

How to Stay Safe at Hotspots

  • Watch out for fake WiFi access points designed to look like the real ones. Check with the establishment to get the legitimate hotspot’s name.
  • Assume you’re not alone on any public WiFi network. Disable file sharing, turn on your computer’s personal firewall, and never send Social Security numbers, passwords or financial information when using an unencrypted wireless connection.
  • Disable features that automatically connect your mobile device to any available network. This will prevent you from accidentally connecting to a fake WiFi hotspot or to a stranger’s computer. There’s no way to tell whether they’re safe.
  • Use a VPN like PRIVATE WiFi to encrypt the information traveling to and from your laptop and your mobile devices. It’s the only way you can be invisible to hackers at WiFi hotspots.
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Jan Legnitto

Jan Legnitto is an investigative journalist and documentary producer who writes about criminal justice and intelligence issues. Jan is also a frequent contributor to the Private I blogs.