Is Coffee Shop or Hotel Wi-Fi Safe? 8 Tips to Stay Safe on Public Wi-Fi

Public WIFI networks are extremely convenient and found almost everywhere. Whether you are stepping out of the house or office to a coffee shop, mall, airport, or retail store, you are assured of free WIFI. The availability of public WIFI networks has led to an increase in the time people spend online. A quick question; how many times have you chosen a coffee shop or restaurant over another because it has a better WIFI connection?

A recent survey revealed that 70% of tablet owners and 53% of smartphone owners use public WIFI networks. Public WIFI networks have numerous benefits for consumers including promoting productivity, assisting in times of emergency, and benefiting students. You can keep in touch with friends on social media or catch up with work on the move. Importantly, you enjoy internet connection without any data charges.

Businesses also benefit from public WIFI networks. One survey revealed that by offering free WIFI to customers, a business increases the foot traffic, time spent on premises, and the money customers spend. Free WIFI increases sales by 72% and foot traffic by 69% according to the survey’s findings.     

Although public WIFI networks have numerous benefits for businesses and consumers, they come with significant risks. As opposed to your home network that is secure, easy to connect to and fairly uncongested, public WIFI is a different story. Since public WIFI networks are open, they are exposed to many threats. They are inherently less secure because you have no idea who set it up and who else is using it.

Also, data sent through a public WIFI network is vulnerable to interception and you risk the security of your personal data and money. Fortunately, there are various safety steps you can take to protect yourself on public WIFI.

1.   Know who to trust

It is best practice to stick to well-known and reliable WIFI networks as opposed to random networks. For example, a well-known network like Starbucks is better than a random network that pops out in the mall. In the case of Starbucks, the WIFI is not absolutely free because the company gets money from you while using it. Although random public WIFI networks can be legit if any passerby can use the network for free, how do the providers benefit? Do they have incentives to keep the network safe?

2.   Use a VPN

A Virtual Private Network (VPN) gives you added security online and is the best safety measure when using a public WIFI. It conceals your online activities, increases online safety, and offers anonymity. A VPN encrypts data coming from your device –laptop, tablet- and connects you to a secure server. It also hides your online activities so that neither the network provider nor other people on the network can see what you are doing online. With such privacy, no one can see your sensitive data.

VPNs are not created equal and hence, you should take caution when choosing one. Although there are many free VPNs in the market, a paid one is better because it is less likely to be financed by a data collecting agency. Using a VPN is easy. Once you choose a VPN provider and download the VPN, it will take you step-by-step through the process of connecting it to your devices. If you connect to different public WIFIs regularly, then you should invest in a good VPN.   

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3.   Verify the legitimacy of a public WIFI network

You should treat all public WIFIs with suspicion. Do not assume that a WIFI network is legitimate just because it bears the name of a coffee shop or hotel. Go a mile further and verify its legitimacy.

If you are in a coffee shop, for example, you can ask an employee to give you more information about the WIFI such as the connection’s name and IP address. Some bogus public WIFI connections use a name similar to a coffee shop or restaurant to target unsuspecting users and harvest their data for malicious use.  

4.   Disable automatic connections to non-preferred networks

Security starts with your device; phone, tablet, or computer. On the device, disable the setting to connect automatically to non-preferred networks. By disabling this setting, you restrict your device to only connect to preferred networks.

If you leave your device to connect to any available network –non-preferred networks- you risk falling victim of rogue WIFI networks. Rogue networks lure unsuspecting people to connect to them so that they can steal their data.  

Also, you should turn off your file and printer sharing so that other people using the same public WIFI network do not have access to them. When using a private network –like your home’s- you can turn on file sharing.

5.   Don’t give away too much data

First and foremost, do not use public WIFI networks to access personal data like emails, bank accounts, social security numbers, and other sensitive data. Be cautious when signing up for public WIFI that asks for too much personal information. Maybe you are asked for an email address, phone number, and other personal data.

If you must connect to such public WIFI networks, ensure they are credible and reputable networks. Do not gamble with your personal information because it can land you in trouble. You wouldn’t like a hacker to steal your identity and harm you. You can consider using an alternative email address when signing up for public WIFI.

In many cases, retail stores and restaurants that ask you to sign up for their public WIFI aim to recognize you when you sign up in multiple WIFI hotspots. Also, they intend to customize and personalize their marketing message to suit your demographics. In such a case, it is upon you to decide whether you are willing to trade your personal details for free internet connection. If you feel the trade-off is not worth it, do not agree to it.

Additionally, sign up to a few public WIFI networks. It is not advisable to sign up to every public WIFI network you come across. The more networks you sign up for, the more companies have your personal details, and the more your data is exposed. Rather than sign up to a new public WIFI every time you are in a new location, you can ask your phone or cable carrier if they have public WIFI networks in that area.      

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6.   Check what you are signing up for

This point is related to the previous one. If you are signing up for public WIFI, do you ever stop to read the terms and conditions they present? More than 90% of people don’t. They just click accept and go straight to browsing. However, this is very risky because maybe the network provider may sell your personal data to other agencies.

Before you connect to a public WIFI network, ensure you read the terms and conditions to know what you are getting into. Although you may not understand every word in the terms and conditions, you can spot red flags. For example, the details on the kind of data they are collecting and the intended use can raise questions. If you are unsure about something in this section, it is best if you look for another WIFI network.

Terms and conditions are good because they protect WIFI providers from liability. Nevertheless, this does not mean that you blindly click on every pop-up screen you get. Do not agree to install any software or browser extensions so that you connect to the WIFI.     

7.   Install a firewall

A firewall acts as a defense mechanism against unauthorized access. It screens incoming and outgoing access requests to ensure they are legitimate and do not pose any risks. While some operating systems like Windows and macOS have in-built firewalls, others do not. If your OS has inbuilt firewalls, make sure you activate them. If not, you can install third-party firewall software. You can also use a rigorous anti-malware to protect your devices from cybercriminals.        

8.   Log on to secure websites only

When using public WIFI networks, it is advisable to stick to HTTPS. Google Chrome helps you know the websites that are encrypted and those that are not. It labels an unencrypted HTTP connection ‘Not Secure.’ Google knows best and hence heed the warning. If Google says a connection is not secure, leave the site.

With HTTPS (encrypted), other people you are sharing the WIFI with cannot see what you are browsing. To confirm that a site is secure, you should see a padlock in the address bar.   

Public WIFI networks are not as secure as home networks. Because they are public, they expose you to many internet security threats. The best way to protect you from the threats posed by public WIFI networks is not using them entirely. You can download music or videos to watch when you are offline or use your phone hotspot if you need internet access. If all these are not possible, then use the safety tips offered in this article to stay out of trouble. Your security when browsing is essential, contact Applied Innovation for better ways to stay secure online. 

About Jess Coburn

It's Jess's responsibility as CEO and Founder of Applied Innovations to set the direction of Applied Innovations services to ensure that as a company we're consistently meeting the needs of our customers to help drive their success. In his spare time, Jess enjoys many of the things that made him a geek to begin with. That includes sexy new hardware, learning new technology and even a videogame or two! When you can’t find him at the office (which admittedly is rare), you’ll likely find him at the grill or in front of his smoker getting ready for some lip-smacking ribs to enjoy with his wife and two kids.