8 Tips for Staying Safe When Using Wi-Fi

8 Tips for Staying Safe When Using Wi-Fi
About the Author

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgoldsborough@gmail.com or reidgold.com. 

We use Wi-Fi, short for wireless fidelity, everywhere and on many devices to connect to the Internet over the air instead of through a physical cable. Wi-Fi gives us more freedom and power, but not without risk.  

You hear lots of scary-sounding jargon about Wi-Fi security risks, including the Evil Twin gambit, Firesheep attacks, and sniffing. Some of the fear is fanned by security companies trying to drum up business for their software or services and some by computer wonks showing off. But some is real.  

One trick is for a bad guy to set up a rogue Wi-Fi network that looks like the legitimate one of the library or coffee shop you're visiting but that allows the crook see and harvest the information needed to steal from you. To avoid this, before connecting, verify the name of the network by asking a staff member or by checking any signs that are posted for instructions.  

Home Wi-Fi networks also present security challenges. Some people don't turn on security when setting up a home Wi-Fi network, which can enable a neighbor to capture your personal information or freeload off your Internet connection.  

Securing your home Wi-Fi simply requires using the software that comes with your router to type in the passkey whenever you add a new device to the network for the first time. Another trick sometimes recommended with new routers is choosing an intimidating sounding network name (SSID) such as c:\virus.exe to scare off nosy neighbors or passers-by. Alternately, you can disable SSID broadcasting, which hides your network's name.  

To help you stay secure with Wi-Fi - at home or in public places - take the following precautions: 

  • Use a virtual private network (VPN) service such as Hotspot Shield ( www.anchorfree.com ), Private Wi-Fi ( www.privatewifi.com ), and WiTopia ( www.witopia.net ) when connecting to public Wi-Fi. Such services, which often come in free ad-supported versions and ad-free and faster-pay versions, encrypt all data that flows between your device and anything you connect to over the Internet.
  • Make sure any sites you connect to in which you have to sign in using a password use TSL (Transport Layer Security) or SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) security. With such sites, the Web address begins with "https." Most do, but it doesn't hurt to check, particularly when buying, banking, or doing similar activities.
  • Keep current with operating system and program updates on your devices. But whenever possible, it's best to do updates over connections you're sure are secure rather than using public Wi-Fi.
  • Use firewall and antivirus software, and keep it current, whether a pay service such a Norton Security ( www.norton.com ), which does it all, or a free service such as AVG Free ( free.avg.com ), which you can use in combination with your operating system's own firewall.
  • Set your browser to block pop-up windows. Be especially wary of updating software through a pop-up window when you connect to a website.
  • Don't use the same password over multiple sites, particularly on sensitive shopping or banking sites.
  • Opt for two-factor authentication when it's available. With this, along with typing a password, you have to answer a question or receive a text, which is more secure.
  • Use long passphrases instead of short passwords. For help in remembering passphrases, you can make each a variation of a theme, changed in a standard way based on the site you're connecting to. Some people use a password management program such as Lastpass ( www.lastpass.com ) and KeePass ( www.keepass.info ). Others store their passwords in a word processing document and encrypt it themselves. Don't keep passwords on scraps of paper stuck on your computer's screen, which defeats their purpose.