Free wi-fi is everywhere. From train stations, coffee shops and even supermarkets – the ability to connect your laptop, smartphone or iPad to a free public wi-fi network can keep you online while on the go.
But as ever, criminals are on the lookout for the unwary, and connecting to a free public wi-fi network without security can expose you to scams, hackers and viruses.
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Follow our advice to stay safe and secure when connecting to free public wi-fi networks.
1. Use recognised wi-fi networks
Anyone can set up a fake wi-fi network with a convincing name, so ensure you know the actual name of the genuine network you want to connect to.
That way, you’ll avoid bogus wi-fi networks designed to scam you.
2. Be careful what sites you visit
Be careful which sites you visit and what data you transmit over public wi-fi.
Avoid using public wi-fi for banking, email, photos or any data sharing, or anything that requires you to enter a password.
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3. Always use secure sites
If you do need to log in to an online account using public wi-fi, always type the URL directly into the web browser address bar and ensure the connection is encrypted.
Look for a padlock in the web browser address bar and a web address beginning with the prefix ‘https’ to be sure.
Use a free web browser extension, such as HTTPS Everywhere, which will direct you to the secure versions of websites (if there is a secure version).
When you’re finished visiting a site that requires your password, remember to log out of your account.
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4. Use two-step authentication
Use two-step authentication for logging into your account – as offered by Gmail, Twitter and Facebook.
This typically involves a code sent to your mobile phone that you need to enter to log into the account.
That way, even if someone hacks your password, the extra security layer will prevent them from opening your accounts.
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5. Don’t download software
As tempting as it is to download applications, for maximum security avoid doing this on public wi-fi. It’s harder to be sure of the source of the app, which could hide a virus or spyware.
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6. Keep up-to-date
Make sure your operating system, web browser and anti-virus programs are up-to-date with the latest versions - but only download and install updates when on your home or work network.
7. Turn on your firewall
Make sure your computer’s firewall is turned on to stop hackers connecting to your computer or iPad.
To do this in Windows, go to Control Panel > Windows Firewall and in Mac OS X go to System Preferences > Security & Privacy and click the 'Firewall' tab.
By default, Windows Firewall hides your computer from others on the same network. Mac users can access this extra protection by clicking 'Firewall Options' on the 'Firewall' tab and selecting 'Enable Stealth Mode'.
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8. Turn off file sharing
File sharing can leave your computer vulnerable to hackers, so turn this option off before using public wi-fi.
In Windows, go to Control Panel > Network and Internet > Network and Sharing Center, and then click 'Change Advanced Sharing Settings'. In OS X, open System Preferences > Sharing.
9. Forget this network option
Make use of your laptop or device’s ‘forget this network’ option to stop it from automatically reconnecting to a wi-fi hotspot without your permission.
In Windows, untick the 'Connect Automatically' box next to the wi-fi network name. To prevent it happening in the future, click the wi-fi name in the 'Network and Sharing Centre', then click 'Wireless Properties' and untick 'Connect automatically when this network is in range'.
On a Mac, go to 'Network' in System Preferences and click 'Advanced' in the wi-fi section, then untick 'Remember networks this computer has joined'.
For iPhone or iPad, tap 'Settings', select 'Wi-Fi networks' and click the ‘I’ icon next to the network name and choose 'Forget this network'.
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10. Set up a virtual private network (VPN)
It may sound technical, but it’s possible to create your own private virtual network.
Called a VPN, this routes your data through an encrypted private network, keeping your activity and data safe even when using public wi-fi.
You can buy VPN services for laptops and mobile devices.
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