PERSONAL FINANCE: Beware of the pitfalls of public Wi-Fi

Ever notice how many people walk down the street completely engrossed in their smartphones and tablets? I fully expect to see one of them to walk into a light post one day.

Although it’s great having access to email, social networking and online shopping anywhere and anytime, such convenience comes with a certain amount of risk, according to Jennifer Fischer, head of Americas Payment System Security at Visa Inc.

“Unless you’re hyper-vigilant about using secure networks and hack-proof passwords, someone sitting at the next table — or halfway around the world — could be watching your every move online and stealing valuable personal and financial information right off your device,” Fischer said.

Unsecured networks and phony networks

“There are two primary potential dangers with Wi-Fi,” Fischer noted. “The first is using an unsecured network — as many public hot spots are. With a little know-how and the right tools, cyber-criminals could easily eavesdrop on your online activity.

“The second hazard,” she continued, “is phony wireless networks that impersonate legitimate Wi-Fi hot spots. You think you’re logged onto a trusted network, but instead a cyber-criminals has hijacked your session and can see all the private information you access or input.”

Manually select a Wi-Fi network

When using public Wi-Fi networks, always follow these safety precautions:

— Change default settings on your laptop, smartphone or tablet to require that you must manually select a particular Wi-Fi network, rather than automatically accepting the strongest available signal.

— Avoid any network connections your device lists as “unsecured” (look for the “lock” icon). But if you must log on to a public network, avoid websites that require log-ins and passwords — such as bank accounts or email.

— Ask for the exact name of the establishment’s hot spot address; don’t be fooled by lookalikes.

— Only send personal data via Wi-Fi to encrypted websites (those whose addresses begin with “https” and display a lock icon). To be safe, you may want to avoid conducting financial transactions on public Wi-Fi altogether; instead, use your secure home network.

— Consider using a third-party virtual private network (VPN) product to encrypt your Internet traffic.

Regularly update anti-virus software

— Regularly update virus and spyware protection software, make sure firewalls are on, and load operating system updates as soon as they become available, whether for your computer or smartphone.

— Turn off Wi-Fi on your device when it’s not in use.

— Never leave a computer unattended while signed in, and always sign out completely at the end of a session.

— Keep an eye out for “shoulder surfers” who watch as you type in your password.

— Finally, change passwords regularly and use different ones for each website you visit. Use a mixture of letters, numbers and symbols and avoid common words and phrases. Security experts recommend using at least 12 characters instead of the minimum eight characters commonly required.

Cyber-crime is big business

Cyber-crime is a booming business. According to the 2012 Norton Cyber-crime Report, its global price tag topped $388 billion last year, more than the global black market in marijuana, cocaine and heroin combined. It impacts individuals, small and large businesses and governments alike.

Being able to access the Internet anywhere and anytime can be a great convenience and time-saver. Just make sure you know what precautions to take when using public Wi-Fi networks.

Jason Alderman directs Visa’s financial education programs. Follow Jason Alderman on Twitter at