What You Need to Know ASAP If You’re Reading This on a Free Wi-Fi Network

What You Need to Know ASAP If You’re Reading This on a Free Wi-Fi Network
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So much of our everyday lives take place online. But that online life, whether it consists of liking your friends’ posts on Facebook or checking your bank account balance, isn’t free.

Unless you dig up some free Wi-Fi from the cafe down the street or your next door neighbor. Then, it might be free. But it’s probably not safe.

A recent survey from Santander UK showed that people will do just about anything for a free connection. Five percent of people in Great Britain have “borrowed” Wi-Fi from their neighbors (with or without permission) because they can’t afford their own, the survey found. It also showed that 5% of people have hung out at a cafe for the Wi-Fi without paying for snacks and another 3% admitted to using “unknown, unsecured Wi-Fi when out and about.”

That last part is no surprise. Who hasn’t flipped on their laptop or whipped out their phone in a coffee shop or on the subway, immediately checking for a free connection?

We’re Worried About Public Wi-Fi Safety… Sort of

More than half the survey pool was concerned about the security of free or borrowed Wi-Fi, but “the need to ‘get online’ and take advantage of a free connection appears to take priority over concerns about unsecure networks,” Santander noted.

This is far from a uniquely British problem. AARP’s 2016 Cyber Security Survey found that 39% of  adults ages 18 and up think public Wi-Fi is “somewhat safe,” 27% think it’s “not too safe,” and 21% think it’s “not at all safe.”

Almost 70% of those surveyed said that locations with free Wi-Fi should “display information on the risks associated with using public Wi-Fi to shop, bank, or access social media sites.”

In the meantime, we’re still cruising whatever Wi-Fi connection we come across.

Some free Wi-Fi portals do provide warnings about protecting your personal information. But what’s personal these days? What might be routine browsing for one person might be a touchy subject for another. We go to coffee shops, McDonald’s and urban parks for access, but should it come with the expectation of privacy?

While you debate that with your friends over drinks at a bar that offers free WI-Fi, consider these ways to keep yourself safe while browsing that free connection.

1. Only Do Business on Secure Websites

Ever noticed the “https” at the top of your browser? That URL prefix is probably accompanied by a padlock symbol. Together, they indicate a secure website, meaning your connection is private.

Using an app on your phone? Visiting that company’s mobile website is probably more secure than using the app since you’ll still get that https protection on the mobile web.

And by business, we’re not talking about checking your bank statements. We’re talking about emailing your mom.

2. Make Sure You’re Using a Legit Network

Anyone can set up a Wi-Fi network, stick it out in public and call it something like “Free Candy.” OK, they’re more likely to call it “Sbarro Pizza Wi-Fi” or something catchy to make you think it’s legitimate.

If something doesn’t feel right, or a free Wi-Fi network doesn’t prompt you to agree to terms of service or log in, turn it off. It’s better to find a legitimate network or pick up your remote work setup and take it to another location. (Oh, you brought your extra monitor to the coffee shop? That’s nice.)

3. Update Your Devices and Get Encrypted

Whether you’re using a smartphone, tablet or laptop, make sure your software is up to date. Smartphone users are notoriously lazy about this, but routine software updates can ensure greater security on whatever device you’re using to check the lotto numbers out in public.

But don’t stop there. “A lot of people will have security software and even encryption on their home computers, but they don’t on their portable devices,” said Steve Weisman, who teaches at Bentley University. “It’s important to have security and encryption software on your mobile devices.”

Encryption software that protects your data can cost $20 to $40, but there are several free options available.

4. Use a VPN

Weisman’s best tip? Get a virtual private network. “This allows you to send your communication through a separate and secure private network even if you’re on free Wi-Fi,” he says. “I really like the VPN. It takes all the effort out” of protecting your data.

Weisman, author of “Identity Theft Alert” and blogger at Scamicide, said VPNs can be economical and noted that free options are also available. Expect a yearly investment of at least $30 if you plan to transfer a lot of data while you’re on the road.

Lisa Rowan is a writer and producer at The Penny Hoarder.