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5 tips to stay safe on public Wi-Fi

| Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Wi-Fi hot spots are a blessing for travelers and anyone who just wants to do a little web surfing while having lunch or coffee in a shop. Connecting is convenient, and it helps users avoid going over their cellular data limits and getting socked with overage fees.

If you're not careful about using free public Wi-Fi, however, strangers can snoop on your email and social network conversations. Worse, if you're too casual about mobile banking or shopping, you could end up with a hacked bank account or credit card account.

Hackers with routers and readily available software set up rogue hot spots for spying and serving you fake websites. You and your tablet will think you're connecting to the coffee shop's Wi-Fi, but you've fallen into a trap.

Despite the risks, it's easy to protect yourself and thwart the bad guys. Follow these five tips to surf more safely:

• Turn off sharing

If you use a laptop, you might have it set to share files and folders with other computers at work or home. You don't want these settings on when you're using a public network.

Windows Vista, 7 and 8 make it simple to automate your sharing settings. When connecting to a public hot spot for the first time, Windows asks for a location type. Make sure you set it to “public.” This will automatically modify sharing settings for maximum safety.

On a Mac, go to System Preferences>>Sharing and make sure all the sharing boxes are unchecked. You'll have to turn on the controls again when you want to file share on your home or work network.

• Don't automatically connect to Wi-Fi networks

It's handy when your smartphone, tablet and laptop automatically connect to your home and work networks, but that can lead to trouble when you're out.

Hackers often give their rogue hot spots generic names such as Coffee Shop, Linksys or AT&T Wireless. You want to be certain you are connecting to the router of the business.

Tweak your gadgets' settings so you have to manually join networks in public. Then verify with a store employee that you are connecting to the correct network.

By the way, your home Wi-Fi is encrypted, right? If not, you're grounded from going out in public until you lock it down!

• Be smart about mobile banking and shopping

It's best to wait until you're at home to do any online banking or shopping. If you must make an emergency balance transfer or an immediate purchase to save a significant amount of money, it's safer to use a cellular connection instead of Wi-Fi.

• Use security software

Your laptop should have the same anti-virus, anti-spyware, and firewall protection that your home computer does. The firewall is particularly important when on a public network. Its entire purpose is to keep snoops out of your system.

Protect your mobile gadgets with apps such as Lookout Mobile Security.

• Look over your shoulder

Not all dangers in the digital world are high-tech. While you're watching the world go by in a busy airport lounge, a snoop could be literally looking over your shoulder with the hope that you might reveal a user name, password or credit card number.

It's called shoulder surfing, and it still works.

Email techcomments@usatoday.com.

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