Free Wi-Fi is becoming so common place that you can go just about anywhere these days and find a connection.  However, this raises a serious security question about whether or not the connection you’re seeing is legitimate or not.  Are you sure you aren’t logging into a hacker filled connection that is going to try to steal information off your computer as you check your e-mail?

As you read this, I am actually in Las Vegas for CES, and I have noticed a huge amount of “Free Wi-Fi” items pop up in my list of networks to join.  No other description, just an usual amount of free Wi-Fi .  This reminded me of something really odd I discovered a while ago on a trip.

Back in Aug. 2009 I went on my first vacation in 13 years to visit a friend when she was finishing school in Boston.  While I had traveled during that time on business, it had been a bit since I had stayed in so many hotels, and free Wi-Fi had really taken off since my last trip.  As soon as I got into my room in Boston, I turned on my laptop to check e-mail (it had been almost eight hours … I had the shakes), and noticed something suspicious almost immediately.

I pulled up the list of Wi-Fi networks, and there were three listed.  Two of them had similar names, but one really leapt out at me because it was named “FREE INTERNET”, yes, in all caps.  I called down to the front desk and asked them what the hotel network was named, and they told me it was the one I had two entries for.  The weird thing was that the random network was giving my stronger signal than the hotel’s network, and this was odd because the building was somewhat isolated, and I was on the seventh floor.  There was only one other building that tall, and it was across the street and at the far end of the hotel from me, so the odds of a signal from there reaching me were low.  I shrugged it off and connected to the hotel’s network.

Where the mystery got even weirder was I was at that hotel for five nights, and the “FREE INTERNET” network only appeared in the list of networks that first night.  While I can’t be sure, I am fairly positive it was a malicious network.  It just had too enticing of a name to not be someone trying to lure people in.

Airport Wi-FiThis reminded me of a story I had read just a month before about cybercriminals targeting vacationers.  When I had originally written up the story, I had some large questions about a study conducted by AirTight Networks, a company that sets up secure networks, where they found malicious networks in 27 airports.  I had immediately wondered:

  • Are the hackers buying tickets every day to get past security, and then setting up in waiting areas with Wi-Fi sniffers?  No one notices the people then not getting on flights?
  • Are they run by employees in the secured areas of the airport?  Those people are searched each day also.
  • No one notices stray, unexplained equipment in a storage room?

It made me far more worried about my physical security as opposed to the security of my laptop.

Symantec did offer up five good suggestions for Wi-Fi security while travelling:

— Pay attention to your surroundings. Just because you’re on vacation doesn’t mean you’re not in public. Don’t look at important documents when sitting in a waiting area for a plane or a train — wait until you’re alone and in private for that.

— Beware of “Evil Twins.” Some Wi-Fi networks look legitimate but are actually dummy networks created by criminals. Even if they contain the name of your airport, airline or hotel, they will directly link your computer to the hacker’s. If you always use the official access keys provided by the establishment, then you should be safe.

— Always assume Wi-Fi connections are being eavesdropped on. Never enter sensitive data — Social Security numbers, bank account information, etc. — when browsing the Web via a Wi-Fi network.

— Set all Bluetooth devices to “hidden,” not to “discoverable.” Better yet, if you don’t use Bluetooth, just shut off the function altogether.

— Keep your security software current and active. Mobile PCs are just as vulnerable to viruses, worms and Trojan horses as are desktops, so make sure you have the latest protection installed.

However, I go even a step further now, and I’m travelling with my Virgin Mobile MiFi 2200.  Why not use your own Wi-Fi network when you can?

As for when I get to hotels now?  I immediately ask them for the name of the Wi-Fi network, and so should you whenever staying at a hotel.  It also doesn’t hurt to do this anywhere you may jump on a free Wi-Fi connection: restaurants, coffee shops, book stores and so on.

As more and more of these networks pop up, and people become more comfortable with using them, it is going to become that much more of a ripe playground for criminals trying to get your information.  It’s better to be proactive as opposed reactive.

What say you?  What are some of your computer safety tips while traveling?