Connecting to public wireless internet via your laptop, smartphone or tablet poses a number of risks. We explain how to use it securely
There are millions of public Wifi hotspots in the UK, in cafes, restaurants, bars, libraries, railway stations and even on the London Underground. But security is a big problem. It is easy to create a fake hotspot and lure unsuspecting users.
Less knowledgable (or just plain busy) users will merrily log on and proceed to check their bank accounts, social networks, emails and make online purchases, unwittingly handing confidential and financial information into the waiting hands of criminals. So we will explain how to spot such trickery and stay as safe as possible when using public hotspots.
Public hotspots are wireless networks that allow users to access the internet in public places and in many cases they are free to users.
Users connect to hotspots just as they would connect to any other wireless network. The hotspot will have a network name (SSID) that allows users to identify it. For example, The Cloud is a big hotspot provider, and the names of its public hotspots are always either ‘Wifi Zone - The Cloud’ or ‘_The Cloud’.
Organisations might also use their business name. For example, we found a local coffee shop using ‘Cinnamon Cafe’ as its SSID.
Most Wifi-enabled devices allow users to pick from a list of available networks. In Windows 7 and Vista for example, the network status icon in the Notification Area shows a yellow dot if wireless networks are available, while in XP a red cross appears.
Clicking the icon shows a list of available wireless networks. Choose the correct one and click the Connect button; depending on the type of security and encryption used a password might be needed. To disconnect from a hotspot, click the name in the network list again and choose Disconnect. Turning off the device’s wireless adapter will close the connection.
Smartphones and tablets vary but, on Apple devices, the wireless network list can be found by tapping Settings then Wi-Fi. Android users should open the Settings menu and tap ‘Wireless & networks’. Then tap Wi-Fi settings to find networks. Some can be set to alert you when a Wifi network is in range, too.
What to look out for
As our investigation showed, creating a fake hotspot is easy. It could even use the name of a genuine hotspot, creating an ‘evil twin’ network that can be quite hard to spot, not least because it’s easy for scammers to set up hotspots that use names of legitimate hotspots (there’s nothing to stop anyone setting up a Wifi network with ‘_TheCloud’ as its SSID, for example).
There are some tell-tale signs to watch out for, though. Networks with names such as ‘Free Public Wifi’ are common and should be avoided. In retail locations, check the correct network name with the staff – if they do not know, go somewhere else.
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