Home > Identity Theft > Is Free Wi-Fi Dangerous?

Comments 0 Comments

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey last month approved a plan to offer free Wi-Fi in New York City area airports this fall. At the moment, travelers can access the Internet for $4.95 an hour, $7.95 for 24 hours or $9.95 a month for access at Boingo Wireless hotspots across the globe, but free Wi-Fi has long been a top demand from travelers passing through JFK, LaGuardia and Newark airports. (Internet access, however, will only be free for 30 minutes at the New York airports; travelers can continue access beyond a half-hour by paying.)

Jetsetters crave Internet access, and it tends to have a positive impact on people’s travel experiences. At the same time, free, public Wi-Fi networks not only expose users’ devices to malicious attacks, they also put consumers at risk for fraud, identity theft and related financial issues. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t hook up to a hotspot during that three-hour layover, but you need to know what you’re dealing with.

It’s OK to Love Free Internet

Free Wi-Fi is a little bit like junk food: It makes us happy, even though we know it’s not necessarily in our best interest. As such, we should balance it with smart choices in order to minimize our exposure to health (i.e. security) risks.

There’s no denying the happiness people get from junk-food buffets, or in this case, free Wi-Fi. Coffee-shop Wi-Fi has become a fixture of modern productivity and is practically a lifeline for people who need to connect to work, or to study and learn about what’s going on beyond their hometowns. In an airport setting, free Internet access may be the difference between agonizing boredom and a tolerable hour at the gate during a flight delay.

At the Indianapolis International Airport, free Wi-Fi is an integral part of the effort to please its visitors.

“We try to really stress the customer experience here,” said Carlo Bertolini, spokesman for the Indianapolis airport. For the past two years, it has held the title “Best Airport in North America,” as determined by Airports Council International’s airport service quality awards. It also won the award in 2010 and was runner-up in 2011. Indianapolis has offered free Wi-Fi to all travelers since its new terminal opened in 2008, and the service is a key part of the high traveler-satisfaction ratings it receives, Bertolini said.

The airport has a faster connection travelers can pay to use, but only a few thousand people used it last year. More than 1 million of the 7.2 million travelers who passed through IND last year connected to the free Internet.

“That’s obviously a touchpoint for customers,” Bertolini said, “especially given the prevalence of mobile devices.”

The Ugly Side of Free Wi-Fi

Easy, inexpensive Internet access may make people happy, but getting hacked has the opposite affect. A large airport may have an IT team or employee dedicated to addressing security issues on the network, but a local coffee shop may not, and in either case, your vulnerability depends heavily on the intentions of the people sharing the network connection you’re using. This isn’t a shortcoming of free Wi-Fi alone: The same goes for your home Internet, if you haven’t taken steps to keep unauthorized users off your connection.

“The risk doesn’t depend on your location,” said Damon Petraglia, an information security forensic investigator. “It depends on how that network was configured and who’s around and who wants to do something malicious. Crimes can happen in a big city, but they also happen in small towns.”

In other words, they can happen at a big airport or at your home, if your Internet connection isn’t secure. There are myriad ways someone can access your online activities, so exercising caution when using free Wi-Fi and regularly monitoring your online and financial accounts for suspicious activity will allow you to stem any potential damage a hacker may do with access to your information.

“Whatever you’re doing can be intercepted, and it may not be any fault of your own, so best practice is to try and use common sense,” Petraglia said. “For the free Wi-Fi stuff, never put in any information you wouldn’t scream out in public.”

What to Do When Free & Fraud Collide

Petraglia said he rarely uses public Internet. Adam Levin, Credit.com’s chairman and co-founder, advises consumers to avoid it, as well. If that doesn’t sound realistic for your lifestyle, you need to accept the responsibility of protecting yourself and accepting the likelihood you’ll experience a breach at some point.

“Don’t take security for granted,” Levin said. “Virus checkers, malware spotters and supposedly ironclad firewalls won’t always protect your personal information. Hackers are in the business of creating new forms of malware that avoid detection. Don’t solely rely on technology to protect your personal data — constantly self-monitor.”

In addition to checking your bank statements and other online accounts, you should regularly review your credit reports and credit scores for signs of fraud. Errors on your credit reports (which you can get here) should be addressed as soon as possible with the credit reporting agency that issued your report, and if you notice a sudden drop in your credit score, you’ll want to investigate if you’ve been a victim of fraud. You can get your credit data for free through Credit.com, which allows you to check and work to improve your credit standing, as well as monitor for signs of identity theft.

More on Identity Theft:

Image: Digital Vision

Comments on articles and responses to those comments are not provided or commissioned by a bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by a bank advertiser. It is not a bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

Please note that our comments are moderated, so it may take a little time before you see them on the page. Thanks for your patience.

Credit.com receives compensation for the financial products and services advertised on this site if our users apply for and sign up for any of them.

Hello, Reader!

Thanks for checking out Credit.com. We hope you find the site and the journalism we produce useful. We wanted to take some time to tell you a bit about ourselves.

Our People

The Credit.com editorial team is staffed by a team of editors and reporters, each with many years of financial reporting experience. We’ve worked for places like the New York Times, American Banker, Frontline, TheStreet.com, Business Insider, ABC News, NBC News, CNBC and many others. We also employ a few freelancers and more than 50 contributors (these are typically subject matter experts from the worlds of finance, academia, politics, business and elsewhere).

Our Reporting

We take great pains to ensure that the articles, video and graphics you see on Credit.com are thoroughly reported and fact-checked. Each story is read by two separate editors, and we adhere to the highest editorial standards. We’re not perfect, however, and if you see something that you think is wrong, please email us at editorial team [at] credit [dot] com,

The Credit.com editorial team is committed to providing our readers and viewers with sound, well-reported and understandable information designed to inform and empower. We won’t tell you what to do. We will, however, do our best to explain the consequences of various actions, thereby arming you with the information you need to make decisions that are in your best interests. We also write about things relating to money and finance we think are interesting and want to share.

In addition to appearing on Credit.com, our articles are syndicated to dozens of other news sites. We have more than 100 partners, including MSN, ABC News, CBS News, Yahoo, Marketwatch, Scripps, Money Magazine and many others. This network operates similarly to the Associated Press or Reuters, except we focus almost exclusively on issues relating to personal finance. These are not advertorial or paid placements, rather we provide these articles to our partners in most cases for free. These relationships create more awareness of Credit.com in general and they result in more traffic to us as well.

Our Business Model

Credit.com’s journalism is largely supported by an e-commerce business model. Rather than rely on revenue from display ad impressions, Credit.com maintains a financial marketplace separate from its editorial pages. When someone navigates to those pages, and applies for a credit card, for example, Credit.com will get paid what is essentially a finder’s fee if that person ends up getting the card. That doesn’t mean, however, that our editorial decisions are informed by the products available in our marketplace. The editorial team chooses what to write about and how to write about it independently of the decisions and priorities of the business side of the company. In fact, we maintain a strict and important firewall between the editorial and business departments. Our mission as journalists is to serve the reader, not the advertiser. In that sense, we are no different from any other news organization that is supported by ad revenue.

Visitors to Credit.com are also able to register for a free Credit.com account, which gives them access to a tool called The Credit Report Card. This tool provides users with two free credit scores and a breakdown of the information in their Experian credit report, updated twice monthly. Again, this tool is entirely free, and we mention that frequently in our articles, because we think that it’s a good thing for users to have access to data like this. Separate from its educational value, there is also a business angle to the Credit Report Card. Registered users can be matched with products and services for which they are most likely to qualify. In other words, if you register and you find that your credit is less than stellar, Credit.com won’t recommend a high-end platinum credit card that requires an excellent credit score You’d likely get rejected, and that’s no good for you or Credit.com. You’d be no closer to getting a product you need, there’d be a wasted inquiry on your credit report, and Credit.com wouldn’t get paid. These are essentially what are commonly referred to as "targeted ads" in the world of the Internet. Despite all of this, however, even if you never apply for any product, the Credit Report Card will remain free, and none of this will impact how the editorial team reports on credit and credit scores.

Your Stories

Lastly, much of what we do is informed by our own experiences as well as the experiences of our readers. We want to tell your stories if you’re interested in sharing them. Please email us at story ideas [at] credit [dot] com with ideas or visit us on Facebook or Twitter.

Thanks for stopping by.

- The Credit.com Editorial Team