How to Use Public Wi-Fi Safely: 16 Expert Tips to Follow in 2024

Why Trust Techopedia

Using public Wi-Fi networks can be extremely convenient because they allow you to stay connected while you’re on the go. However, it’s vital to exercise caution when you log into public Wi-Fi networks because of the various security vulnerabilities associated with these networks.

Connecting to a public Wi-Fi network means data travels from your device to the website you’re accessing. This data can include sensitive information, such as login credentials for email, social media profiles, and financial accounts.

Public Wi-Fi networks are typically unsecured, so they put your information at risk. However, most websites now employ encryption to safeguard data during transmission, enhancing the safety of public Wi-Fi connections.

Still, you must be aware of public Wi-Fi dangers and carefully implement key safety measures, such as using antiviruses and VPNs and enabling two-factor authentication (2FA), to protect your data from breaches.

Key Takeaways

  • Public Wi-Fi networks are typically unsecured, putting your information at risk.
  • It’s critical to exercise caution when you log into public Wi-Fi networks because of the various security vulnerabilities associated with these networks.
  • Cybercriminals can inject malware into your device when you’re connected to an unsecured network.
  • Although public Wi-Fi networks offer convenience, you need to be vigilant if you use them.
  • Careless use of public Wi-Fi could jeopardize your financial information, financial details, and job security.

Putting Your Employer at Risk

Public Wi-Fi networks are susceptible to surveillance by malicious actors who could intercept sensitive documents, such as confidential contracts, invoices, and two-factor authentication codes.

As such, your organization may also be vulnerable to public Wi-Fi risks. For example, if you’re using a company laptop, cybercriminals could hack into your business email or steal sensitive corporate data, potentially resulting in financial losses or harm to your company’s reputation.

Advertisements

Consequently, careless use of public Wi-Fi could jeopardize your personal finances and job security. That’s why you need to know how to use public Wi-Fi safely.

Cybercriminals can inject malware into your device when you’re connected to an unsecured network. Moreover, scammers often craft deceptive websites that appear legitimate but are designed to steal your data. That’s why you should always validate the legitimacy of the websites you visit.

Hackers can exploit vulnerabilities in public Wi-Fi networks to hijack active sessions, thereby gaining unauthorized access to your accounts posing a significant threat to your privacy and security.

Bad actors can disrupt your life and the business life of your employer by launching ransomware attacks through public Wi-Fi that can lock you out of your own data or your company’s systems until a ransom is paid.

Although public Wi-Fi networks offer convenience, you need to be vigilant if you use them. By being cautious, you can take advantage of the benefits public Wi-Fi offers without compromising your security.

How to Stay Safe on Public Wi-Fi

Protecting your data and devices on public Wi-Fi goes beyond protecting yourself on just the Wi-Fi aspect.

Robert Siciliano, a cybersecurity expert and CEO of Protect Now, said:

“Cybersecurity is holistic in its nature, meaning the devices hardware, software, and various forms of access control all need consideration.”

Here are 16 tips for how to stay safe on public Wi-Fi:

16 Tips on How to Stay Safe on Public Wi-Fi

1. Ensure There’s a Padlock Next to the URL

URLs starting with HTTPs rather than HTTP transmit information through an encrypted connection.

Adam Levin, an expert on identity theft, privacy, cybersecurity, fraud, and personal finance, and a co-host of “What the Hack with Adam Levin” podcast, told Techopedia:

“If the website you’re using starts with HTTP or doesn’t have a padlock icon next to it, any information you send can easily be intercepted in transit.”

Siciliano agrees, saying that by default, your browser should let you know if a particular website is at risk.

Only visit HTTPS-encrypted websites that are more secure than unencrypted sites when you’re on public Wi-Fi.

2. Use a VPN

The advent of HTTPS on the web has made using public networks less risky, but using a virtual private network (VPN), where your network traffic is routed through a remote server, makes it even less so, says Levin.

Siciliano added:

“That’s because a VPN encrypts your Internet traffic, protecting it from snooping on public networks. The VPN software is free or costs a small fee, and it’s your best defense against digital Wi-Fi snooping.”

3. Enable Two-Factor Authentication

According to Levin, every critical account needs additional password protection.

“This is generally done via your mobile phone as a second form of authentication where you receive a one-time pass code via text,” he says. “This extra login step code sent to your phone for accounts that offer it prevents unauthorized access even if your password is compromised.”

4. Beware of Over-the-Shoulder Snoopers

The most secure Wi-Fi connection in the world doesn’t amount to anything if someone is looking over your shoulder and able to see your every move, according to Levin.

If you’re using public Wi-Fi in a crowded cafe or lobby, try to sit against a wall to avoid snooping.

5. Use Your Phone as a Hotspot

“Most modern smartphones offer an option to allow laptops and tablets [to connect to the Internet] through their Internet connection,” Levin says. “Depending on your data plan, your connection may be slower, but it will likely be more secure.”

6. Keep All Software Updated

Be sure to install the latest operating system and software updates, which often include security patches, to protect against vulnerabilities, Siciliano says. Outdated software creates vulnerabilities that Wi-Fi hackers can seek out.

7. Don’t Use a Personally Identifiable Device Name

If your laptop is connected to a public network and is called “Bob Smith’s MacBook Pro,” anyone who is on the same Wi-Fi will know your name and the type of computer you’re using, according to Levin. He says:

“And any publicly displayed information can give a hacker an initial foot in the door to your device and your identity.”

8. Confirm the Name of the Network

“Picture this: You’re visiting New York City and find a cafe called Central Perk,” Levin says.

“When you log on to your laptop to check your email, you connect to a network called ‘Central Perk Wi-Fi.’ The catch? The cafe doesn’t have public Wi-Fi, and you’ve just sent sensitive data through an unknown third party.”

So be sure to ask an employee if they have a Wi-Fi network or if the connection information is posted publicly, Levin says. Also, be sure you are connecting to that network and not one with a similar name, which might have been set up by a nearby hacker.

Siciliano concurs that you need to confirm the name of the network with staff at the municipality, airport, café, or wherever, or look for posted signs about the Wi-Fi before connecting. He added:

“Wi-Fi hackers can create fake hotspots often known as ‘evil twins’ with similar names to trick Wi-Fi users.”

9. Avoid Auto-Connecting

In your device’s Wi-Fi settings, you should be able to toggle off various known Wi-Fi hotspots, Siciliano says.

“Disabling the automatic Wi-Fi connection on your device prevents it from joining rogue hotspots that may be set up as evil twins,” he adds.

10. Don’t Leave Your Device Unattended

Leaving a laptop or other device unattended for even a short period of time makes it, as well as any data on it, up for grabs, according to Levin.

“In the best case (but bad) scenario, someone can steal it,” he says. “In the worst case (but really bad) scenario, they can access sensitive stored data, such as your passwords, financial information, or photos.”

11. Turn off File Sharing

Levin says it’s convenient to share data between devices on a secured home or work network.

If you’re on a public network, anyone else can access your files. So disable any kind of file or data sharing on your device before you send or receive any information.

12. Use Antivirus Software

Paid antivirus software comes with antivirus, anti-spyware, anti-phishing, and a firewall,” Siciliano says. “Antivirus programs are designed to detect and block malicious software that spies on you and can infect your device on unsecured public Wi-Fi networks.”

13. Enable a Firewall

By default, your firewall should be turned on. Siciliano says:

“Keep your device’s firewall enabled to block unauthorized access while on public networks. The device’s operating system should come equipped with a built-in firewall. [If not], do a search engine query for the name of the operating system and search the word ‘firewall’ for instructions on how to enable it.”

14. Don’t Access Sensitive Information

Public Wi-Fi networks can be handy if you need to look up directions, double-check a reservation or flight information, or browse shopping sites, Levin says. However, it can be a serious liability if you use it to access financial accounts or transmit sensitive information.

Siciliano agrees that you should avoid logging into sensitive accounts, such as online banking, or entering passwords on public Wi-Fi, as hackers can intercept your data. Save the critical and sensitive data processing for at home or at work on a secure Wi-Fi connection.

15. Log Out After Use

“When you’re finished on critical websites, log out of those websites, shut down tabs or even your whole browser, and disconnect from the Wi-Fi network to minimize exposure,” Siciliano says.

16. Don’t Use Public Wi-FI at All

Levin says that even if you access the Internet from a perfectly secured device through a Fort Knox-level network connection, there are still unavoidable risks.

Using public Wi-Fi leaves you vulnerable to multiple risks, so it’s better not to even use public Wi-Fi if you can.

The Bottom Line

Although using public Wi-Fi is convenient, it’s crucial that you exercise caution when doing so to avoid the risks of using unsecured networks, which hackers can exploit to steal your sensitive data.

Always follow the key expert tips to stay safe and protect your personal and corporate data.

FAQs

What is a safe way to use public Wi-Fi?

Why is it recommended that you avoid doing online banking on public Wi-Fi?

Why is it not safe to connect to public Wi-Fi networks?

What security risk does a public Wi-Fi connection pose?

Advertisements

Related Reading

Related Terms

Advertisements
Linda Rosencrance
Technology journalist
Linda Rosencrance
Technology journalist

Linda Rosencrance is a freelance writer and editor based in the Boston area, with expertise ranging from AI and machine learning to cybersecurity and DevOps. She has been covering IT topics since 1999 as an investigative reporter working for several newspapers in the Boston metro area. Before joining Techopedia in 2022, her articles have appeared in TechTarget, MSDynamicsworld.com, TechBeacon, IoT World Today, Computerworld, CIO magazine, and many other publications. She also writes white papers, case studies, ebooks, and blog posts for many corporate clients, interviewing key players, including CIOs, CISOs, and other C-suite execs.