Free wireless Internet can be a lifesaver when you need a fast connection away from home.  Unfortunately, this is the computer equivalent of sharing a soda with everyone else at the truck stop while in the middle of flu season.  There are a lot of bad bugs going around, and the least you can do is learn to use your own straw.  Here are four simple tips to avoid identity theft and a visit to the computer doctor.

  1. Use Encryption – If you have to enter a password in order to connect to a Free WiFi Hotspot, then its a pretty safe bet that you are using an encrypted connection.  What this does is scramble the information (like cable TV did back in the day) so that anyone within range of your computer can’t eavesdrop on your emails, passwords, and other private information.

  2. Use SSL whenever possible – Look for https:// (not just https://) at the beginning of the web address you are visiting.  This means that again, you have an encrypted link directly between you and the website you are accessing so that the hotspot owner and anyone else in the middle can’t spy on your browsing session.

  3. Always select “Public Network” when connecting – Computers running Windows Vista or 7 as well as many antivirus programs (You are using antivirus I hope?) will normally ask this question whenever you first connect to a new network.  Selecting “Public Network” will automatically choose the safest Internet settings and block unwanted incoming connections.  If you are using an older version of Windows or an Apple computer, you may have to set these manually.  Unfortunately, that is beyond the scope of this article.

  4. Always use a good antivirus program with built-in firewall – This goes without saying, but well over half of the computers we see in our shop have either no antivirus at all or antivirus that is not up to par.  We prefer Avast Internet Security, but this isn’t the only good brand.  Something is better than nothing.  Get it. Use it. And keep it updated.

These four simple tips should help you stay safe on public WiFi, avoiding costly virus removal, or worse, identity theft.  Nothing is fool-proof though, so you should still use extreme caution on what you choose to access while using an Internet connection that you do not control.  Remember, be smart, and you’ll be safe.  There’s just no way to tell who else may have been back-washing into that soda.