Think Before You Buy Those Shoes at Starbucks!

By Diana Palmieri

Know the dangers of free Wi-Fi networks in public places and prevent identity theft.

Most folks just see the words “free wi-fi” and start typing, surfing, and shopping away. Computer hackers are at work 24/7 trying to get your personal information and essentially will not hesitate to steal from you. Private data, including credit card numbers, can go public from your local Wi-Fi hotspot, and you won’t even know until it’s too late.

But aren’t banks, merchant, and credit card sites encrypted? Yes, most of them are. However, you can bet hackers have found a way to still steal your credit card and any other personal data.  This is called “side-jacking,” and this issue was brought to the public’s attention after the release of what’s called the Firesheep program. This program allows hackers to capture cookies transmitted over a public Wi-Fi connection and then use those cookies to gain access to e-mail and other networking sites of anyone using the network. So, in other words, if you’ve just emailed credit card data, social security numbers, or other precious personal information, hackers can gain this information through those e-mails. Pretty scary stuff. The Firesheep program was not created for these hackers; it was actually intended for these social network and e-mail sites (Hotmail, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) to encrypt a user’s session after logging in. 

So what can I do to protect myself? 

  • Use VPNs (Virtual Private Networks). These encrypt all information that a user transmits online and makes communication more private. A lot of employers use these networks, but you can use VPNs too. Consult a local tech savvy place such as Radio Shack or Staples for more information. VPNs can be downloaded, but I’d ask a professional first.
  • Use paid Wi-Fi. If you constantly surf in a wireless environment, paid Wi-Fi might be a better bet for you. Some experts say this is a better way to go than even a VPN. You can purchase these cards from Sprint or AT&T, for example.  The tech savvy stores will have them too.
  • Use e-mail that encrypts all data. A user can tell if the Web site is encrypted if a small padlock appears to the right of the site’s address.   
  • View encrypted pages. This means in the URL it will be “https” instead of just “http.”
  • Smart phone users: Beware, too! If you are off your 3 or 4 G network and connect to a free Wi-Fi hotspot, you are vulnerable. There should be encryption settings in your phone. Consult the user’s manual, or call your provider.

Facebook and Twitter are finally coming around and have enabled some encryption privacy settings that you can adjust (wondering why it’s not the default but at least it’s there). Go to your account settings and enable them. Some free Wi-Fi spots are actually using passwords now for users to log in. Be aware you are still on a shared network, so there’s still some risk. The bottom line is to be aware of your Internet habits (and your kids), and think before you click! Personally, I am very paranoid and will not allow my husband or myself to surf freely on any public Wi-Fi network. Any bill paying, purchases, etc. are done at home on my secure private network. I’d rather be safe than sorry. The shoe purchase can wait ’til I get home!

Diana Palmieri is dually registered with Vanderbilt Securities LLC and H Beck Inc., which are unaffiliated. Securities offered through Vanderbilt Securities LLC, member SIPC/FINRA/MSRB. 

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