Public Enemies: How to Stay Safe on Public WiFi

May 16, 2019


When was the last time you logged into a secure online account while sipping a latte at your favorite coffee shop? If you’re anything like most Americans, the answer is probably not that long ago. While having “anytime, anywhere” access to your financial accounts is convenient, there are plenty of potential threats lurking in the background of public WiFi networks.

The 2017 Norton Wi-Fi Risk Report found 92 percent of Americans have potentially put their personal information at risk while using public WiFi. Among them, 32 percent have accessed their bank account or other financial information. What’s more, 19 percent said they had entered personally identifiable information (PII), such as their Social Security number or birthday, while using public WiFi.

Why is this a potentially dangerous practice?   Because encryption and other security protocols are often lax or nonexistent on public WiFi networks, they could be ripe for attack by cybercriminals looking to steal sensitive information.

Encryption is key to keeping personal data secure online. It scrambles the information you send over the Internet into a code so it’s not accessible to others. Most routers are shipped from the factory with encryption turned off by default, and there’s no surefire way to tell if a public WiFi network has it turned on. 

If you use an unsecure network to log into an unencrypted website (one without an “s” following “http” in the URL), your personal information, including login credentials, could be up for grabs by cybercriminals. Once they have your information, hackers can use it to gain access to your other accounts, including websites that store your financial information.

How can I stay safe while using a public WiFi network?

Take the following steps to protect your information when using a public WiFi network:

  • Only visit secure websites. To ensure information you submit to a website is being encrypted, look for the “s” at the end of “https” on any website you visit. If there’s no “s,” avoid using the site. Whatever you do, don’t log in or provide any information to an unsecure website.
  • Do not use the same password for different online accounts. Using the same password for multiple accounts opens you up for much greater impact if someone gains access to one of your accounts.
  • Log out of your online accounts when you are finished. Staying permanently signed into accounts makes it easier for hackers who could be eavesdropping on your online activity to access your personal information.