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Don't Do This on Free Public Wi-Fi

© Paul Bradbury/OJO Images/Getty Images
Cafes, hotels and even airports are beacons for data thieves trying to capture your online information. Even Wi-Fi hubs that require a password or special logon are susceptible to people using easily acquired data sniffing software, never mind non-password-protected hubs, which are as theoretically unsafe as counting your life savings in the middle of a crowded room or handing out your personal data on business cards in the street.

Here are a few public Wi-Fi safety tips to consider.

Avoiding fake Wi-Fi hubs

It doesn't take much computer savvy to create a fake Wi-Fi hub using a laptop. If a thief does this and then gives the hub a location-appropriate name, like "Free Coffee Shop Wi-Fi" or "[Insert popular service] Free Wi-Fi," people desperate to get online could unknowingly share all manner of private information.

Avoid connecting to unfamiliar hubs, and don't set your device to automatically connect to common, generic hub names, as these could both be bogus. If there are multiple networks, check with an employee to verify which hub is theirs. Remember, half the art of setting up a fake Wi-Fi hub is giving it a credible name, so treat even the most plausible-sounding names with suspicion.

Protect your computer

Most computers will have a firewall working by default, though settings may vary. There are multiple firewall levels (e.g., Domain, Home, Work and/or Public), all of which should naturally be set to "on." Also, select "block all incoming connections to programs that are not on the list of allowed providers." Lastly, most people will want to disable file sharing when they're away from home. Activating the firewalls on smartphones and tablets when using public Wi-Fi is also recommended.

Recognizing secure websites

When shopping or entering private information online, it's vital to only use secure and encrypted websites, identifiable by "https" in the address bar adjacent to a tiny padlock icon. Some popular sites give users a choice of security settings. It's best to have these set to "whenever possible, log in with https." Entering banking or credit card information on websites starting with only "http" is extremely risky.

If you're not certain about a Wi-Fi connection

Sometimes you may not be able to verify the legitimacy of a Wi-Fi hub, but you need to get online anyway. In these cases, if at all possible, avoid visiting sites that contain confidential personal data (Social Security number, passport number), banking information, credit card numbers or anything requiring important passwords.

The best defense is a good offense

The absolute safest security option on the road is to set up a virtual private network (VPN). VPNs create a password-protected, encrypted tunnel from your device to the Internet, your company's network or even your computer at home. There are some free VPN services, but people wanting reliable, fast Internet service should consider one of the subscription providers, though even these can sometimes be slow and glitchy.

If there's an emergency that requires accessing sensitive information, another alternative is to shut off the Wi-Fi on your handheld device and use your cellular data service to access that information. It's not 100 percent safe, but it's considerably safer than using an unfamiliar Wi-Fi hub. Be mindful of this option if you have a limited data plan, and make sure you invoke all due handheld-device security measures.

Last but not least

Cultivate a little healthy paranoia. Turn around once in a while to see if someone is looking over your shoulder or has an easy sightline to your screen.