You go to the food court at a mall, a coffee shop, or some other public space over the holidays, open your laptop or power up your tablet, and start checking for available wi-fi. When you see a “free” network, you click on it with a chuckle, take a hearty sip of your peppermint stick latte, go through your email, and then start making sure your checking account is squared away before you buy gifts for the last people on your Christmas list.
What’s wrong with this picture?
Pretty much everything, say data security experts. It turns out that fraudsters love to set up fake “free” wi-fi networks at public spaces over the holidays, hoping that busy shoppers taking a break, or the bored people accompanying them, will use the networks and expose their personal data, whether it’s passwords, bank or credit card information, or personal data that could lead to identity theft. Many people who routinely use “free” public wi-fi networks are altogether too trusting, and are willing to agree to just about any terms to get the internet access they crave.
In fact, as the story linked above reports, an 11-year-old kid in Texas won his school science fair this year by proving that point. He set up anonymous free internet access portals in shopping mall food court areas that had the most draconian conditions available — including allowing the portals to do things like “reading and responding to your emails” and “monitoring of input and/or output” — and more than half of the people offered those conditions agreed to them. That’s a pretty stiff price for something that supposed to be “free.”
Hackers are everywhere (just ask Yahoo!) and are eager to get to your personal data. So please: use precautions and common sense. Don’t go onto just any “free” network and start exposing your most important and intimate personal and financial data to whoever might have set up that network, or hacked into it. Think about whether the network really seems to be bona fide. And consider whether some activities — like on-line banking — really should be exclusively reserved for a network you know and trust.
This holiday season, don’t get ho-ho-hacked.