Summer travel used to be a time to wind down, relax and spend time with family and friends. It still is, but nowadays you have the opportunity to stay more connected than ever. You can spend time with your family in Hawaii while staying in touch with your college buddies in Montana or helping your colleagues with a time-sensitive project.
You’re apt to find a free Wi-Fi network at just about any hotel, cafe, airport, campground or public beach. It is a great service, but is it safe to hook up your mobile devices to any free Wi-Fi network? Not necessarily, says BendBroadband’s information security officer, Matt Shaffer.
“The first thing you do when you arrive at the airport or hotel with time to kill is to jump on the Wi-Fi,” Shaffer says. “However, that free connection can be a dangerous place because anyone can access it.”
A free Wi-Fi network is like a playground: The bullies are allowed to play in the same area as the well-behaved kids. The only difference is that if you’re playing in a Wi-Fi network, you can’t see who is about to throw sand in your face.
There is always a chance that cybercrooks are “sniffing” a Wi-Fi signal in search of computers and tablets that are open to attack. Sniffing hardware and software can be used to intercept and log whatever is sent over wireless networks.
“In most cases, they are not interested in what you have on your computer as much as what they can place on your computer,” Shaffer says.
A savvy criminal can load malware or Trojan horses onto your mobile computer device. Once he “owns” your laptop, tablet or smartphone, the criminal can use it to send spam or make robo-calls.
Wi-Fi networks provided by hotels and airports may feel safer, but as Shaffer notes, you don’t know who is sitting next to you in the airport restaurant or staying in the hotel room next door.
“Don’t connect to a free Wi-Fi network if you don’t know who is providing the services,” Shaffer suggests. “If you do connect, make sure that you have anti-malware software on your mobile device.”
If you want to take “travel safety” a step further, consider using your smartphone as a personal Wi-Fi hot spot or purchasing a separate mi-fi device.
Shaffer also suggests that you set Bluetooth or Wi-Fi on your mobile device to manual discovery.
“You don’t want your mobile device to automatically connect to unknown Bluetooth and Wi-Fi networks,” he says.
Summer travel also means that you’re moving out of your comfort zone. It’s easy to get stressed in unfamiliar surroundings. Think of going through airport security, checking in at a hotel or paying for food at a restaurant in a foreign country. A moment’s distraction is all a thief needs to make off with your phone or computer.
“Used devices are worth a lot more than people think,” Shaffer says. “A stolen iPhone can fetch hundreds of dollars on the black market, and if you lose your brand-name laptop, there are people willing to pay upwards of a thousand dollars for the right make or model.”
“You have to put your mobile device in the same category as your wallet,” he says.
You put your mobile devices to the test when you take them on summer excursions — river rafting, mountain biking, a day at the beach.
“People tend to be more loosely guarded, especially when they are enjoying themselves. Water, dust and, to a lesser extent, sand can spell trouble for a smartphone or a tablet,” says Shaffer, an avid outdoorsman.
There are bags and cases on the market that will protect your mobile devices, but they tend to come with hefty price tags. Shaffer suggests a cheaper alternative.
“I use a zippered freezer bag,” he says. “It’s not intended for submersion, but it will at least make your phone or tablet splash-proof.”