(Photo credit: Shutterstock/Natee Meepian)
By Eileen Ambrose
Free public wireless networks may come at a steep price—the theft of your finances and identity.
Many of these public Wi-Fi networks lack strong security protections, making it easy for hackers to capture passwords and gain access to your credit card and bank account information as you shop or conduct other financial transactions online.
“The convenience of free Wi-Fi networks remains a great asset for surfing the internet or checking the news or the latest weather forecast,” Frank Abagnale, AARP Fraud Watch Network’s ambassador and an authority on identity theft and forgery, said in a statement. “But consumers should never use unsecured Wi-Fi to log in to social media, engage in credit card transactions, or do online banking.”
Many of us do, though.
A Fraud Watch Network survey of 800 adults found that about 4 out of 10 consumers use free Wi-Fi at least once a month. And among those using public Wi-Fi in the previous six months, one-third made a purchase with a credit card, 37 percent banked online, and more than 70 percent checked email and social media accounts.
Wi-Fi hackers use a variety of techniques to steal your information.
“It can be as simple as them setting up a router that appears to have the same name as the one at the coffee shop or the hotel,” says Amy Nofziger, director of regional operations for AARP Foundation. “You think you’re on the real one, but you’re on theirs. So any personal or private information you put into that, they have immediate access to.”
Sometimes hackers station themselves between you and the Wi-Fi connection point, intercepting any credit card or financial information you send.
It’s unknown how pervasive the problem is, although the FBI reported that cybercrimes accounted for more than $1.3 billion in losses in 2016 alone.
Victims often don’t even realize that the suspicious charge appearing on their credit card statement was the result of using free Wi-Fi earlier, Nofziger says.
“It’s something people by and large don’t think about, and they really need to be aware of it,” says Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy for the nonprofit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego.
Stephens says it’s OK to use free Wi-Fi “if you want to watch a video or read the news, check the weather or traffic conditions or check on an airline flight to see if it’s on time. But don’t use it for anything requiring a log-in.”
And if you must conduct financial or other sensitive transactions online, you’re better off using your phone’s data plan than free Wi-Fi, he adds.
The Fraud Watch Network offers other tips on how to protect yourself. For instance, never let your mobile device automatically connect to the nearest Wi-Fi.
The Fraud Watch Network also is reaching out to businesses that provide free Wi-Fi, offering them a tip sheet they can post so customers can learn how to avoid cyber scams. Most consumers polled say they have never seen a business post any warnings about Wi-Fi safety, although they are more likely to have a favorable view of companies that do.
For information about other scams, sign up for the Fraud Watch Network. You’ll receive free email alerts with tips and resources to help you spot and avoid identity theft and fraud. Keep tabs on scams and law enforcement alerts in your area with AARP’s Scam-Tracking Map.
This article has been updated to reflect current data.