This post has been contributed by Matt Davis, a Victim Advisor at the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC), a non-profit organization established to support victims of identity theft in resolving their cases, and to broaden public education and awareness in the understanding of identity theft. It is the on-going mission of the ITRC to assist victims, educate consumers, research identity theft and increase public and corporate awareness about this problem.
In 2012, many professionals view air-travel days as an opportunity to get some extra work done, pay bills online, or distract themselves during their commute by surfing the internet. The convenience and ease of use of modern laptops and iPads have made it easy to stay connected en route. Wireless Fidelity, commonly known as WiFi, essentially provides an avenue for computers to connect to the web wirelessly and is now commonplace in most major Airports and is becoming more common on the airplanes themselves. As with most technological conveniences these days, in addition to the obvious advantages, WiFi in airports pose additional risk to consumers who may not be aware that they’re in potentially dangerous ‘hot zones’ for identity theft.
Public WiFi is a beacon for those who would seek to harvest your personal information through your internet connection. Free wireless networks are usually not password protected or have a password that’s publicly available. This means that every time you sign on to a public WiFi connection, you’re essentially sharing a connection with any and all strangers in the area. In an airport especially, even more-so than in a coffee shop or other place usually associated with public wifi, the number of strangers in your immediate vicinity is usually much higher. Any and all of those strangers have the potential ability to access the same network connection you’re using. All it takes is one malicious user on your network to cause you a lot of trouble.
Anytime you access public connections to the internet, your computer is more exposed to the threats of malware or viruses which may be present on another’s laptop, not to mention the threat of a nefarious fellow traveler snooping through your shared files, shoulder surfing to watch you input your passwords, or otherwise monitoring your internet activity. Most people don’t realize that when sharing a network internet connection with someone, there is no additional firewall or security in place to protect the information stored on your computer. This quite naturally makes places like airports and other areas that offer free public WiFi very attractive to would-be identity thieves.
If you can avoid using public WiFi altogether, do so… if you just can’t resist checking the scores or the weather while waiting to board your flight or arrive at your intended destination, try to avoid doing potentially dangerous activities like online banking, filing tax returns, or checking any email accounts that might have valuable information stored in it; as this information could be harvested from your machine and used against you. Also be wary of any wireless network that shows up with a stronger signal than the network offered by the known provider (in other words, if you’re in the American Airlines terminal, you shouldn’t choose that random linksys server over the one labeled “Americanterminal1access” for example). Often potential hackers will generate their own network signal to have others “hook up” to them, exposing all their information. Other network users will see the stronger signal and connect to it unwittingly, without realizing that they’ve just voluntarily offered up anything that isn’t independently password protected for viewing by the thief.
When using your home wireless connection, ensure that it’s always password protected. Remember, you never know who else may be online.