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How to Avoid Identity Theft at Wi-Fi Hotspots

While you’re taking care of business on your laptop at the neighborhood coffeehouse, there may be a person across the room — or in his car across the street — busy on his laptop or smartphone, too.

Except that he’s busy capturing what he needs over the public Wi-Fi airwaves to steal your identity, drain your bank account or max out your credit card. That may be the priciest latte you ever ordered.

Before You Go

1. Strengthen your security. Be sure your laptop security is up to date, says the FBI, with current versions of your operating system, Web browser, firewalls and anti-spyware software. This is good advice even when you’re working at home, just in case that neighbor who never says much is up to no good. But at a coffeehouse or airport where you’re surrounded by strangers with laptops, it’s crucial.

2. Protect your passwords. You know how websites and browsers ask if you’d like them to “remember” (save and store) your password? Just say no, according to PC Magazine."You’re probably better off not storing your username and password anywhere and that goes double for road warriors who frequently connect via public Wi-Fi,” the magazine says. Storing this data on an encrypted passport management application is probably safe, however.

3. Pick your spots. Some wireless hotspots are very safe to use, while others have no security safeguards at all. If you have a choice, such as two coffeehouses on the same block, choose the one that requires online registration with a log-in password. The most secure networks require a password for access because they’re encrypted; avoid “unsecured” networks that let you in with no password required (they may be planted by a nearby hacker), says PC Magazine.

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Going Online

4. Turn it off. Don’t forget to turn off (disable) File Sharing, and remove any files that might be in your Shared Documents or Public folder, according to About.com’s mobile office technology expert, Melanie Pinola. Also, disable your ad-hoc wireless network if you use an intranet network through your employer.

5. Select the right network. When you choose among Wi-Fi networks, manually select one after changing the default setting (if necessary) on your laptop, says the FBI. Choose “Public” or “Public Network” if your computer gives you that option. (Public Network locations block file and printer sharing from potential data thieves.) Of course, be sure you connect to a known network, not just the one with the most bars.

6. Use a VPN. If you don’t already use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) during Wi-Fi sessions on your home or work computer, consider it now. According to PC Magazine.
VPNs keep your data and communications in a “virtual tunnel … secured against anyone who may try to intercept your Web session while connected to a public hotspot.”

Playing It Safe

7. Surf with care. Avoid financial transactions like online banking and e-commerce.
If you can, also limit or avoid instant messaging and checking Web-based email because they may not be encrypted. In general, don’t go to sites that may not be secure (secure sites begin with “https”) or that may reveal sensitive information. Wait until you get home.

8. Watch your back. Even if you take all of these steps, don’t forget about “brick-and-mortar” theft. Some identity thieves “shoulder surf” in crowded places: sitting beside or behind you while hoping you’ll type your credit-card number or a key password. Change tables if you’re suspicious. Or they may simply snatch your laptop.

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