Is Coffeehouse Free Wi-Fi Safe?
It’s a sunny Saturday morning and you take a walk to your local coffeehouse for a cup of the best java in the neighborhood. You grab a table, open your laptop, and as you’ve done hundreds of times, you connect to the coffeehouse’s free Wi-Fi. After an hour of some online shopping and posting a picture of your delish muffin on Facebook, you head home. An hour later you get a fraud alert from your credit card company asking if you made a $259.62 purchase at a store you’ve never heard of in a place you’ve never been to. You know you have your credit card. How did they steal your information? If you had used a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to connect to the free Wi-Fi in the coffeehouse, you wouldn’t need to ask the question. A VPN makes insecure networks secure by encrypting your internet connection.
You dodged a bullet – this time. The most likely explanation for how the mystery shopper was able to use your credit card? A hacker gained access to your internet connection while you were surfing the web on the coffeehouse’s free Wi-Fi. Once there, he can see everything that you send over the network. Like when you bought those shoes at your fave online store and entered your credit card information. If you had used a VPN, your credit card number would have been encrypted and therefore unreadable.
Don’t feel too bad. Many users have very poor computer security habits. According to VPN vendor NordVPN, users leave themselves vulnerable in many ways. Their top 20 list includes using the same password for all of their accounts, not setting a passcode for their phone and computer, and not installing antivirus software. Of course, not using a VPN is on the list. This may sound self-serving on NordVPN’s part, but they are selling a product needed by every user.
Worse Than You Think
The statistics on cybercrime are overwhelming. Millions of people around the world are victims of cyberattacks each year.
- 15 million consumers had their identities stolen in 2017.
- The United States is the number one target of cyberattacks.
- At least half of all public Wi-Fi in any country in the world is insecure.
Yet, millions login into free Wi-Fi around the globe without taking any precautions. Unfortunately, it usually takes a person being a victim of a cybercrime before they improve their security habits.
Companies and governments are at a higher risk than individuals. Small businesses are often targeted because their cyber security budgets are small – or nonexistent. To give you an idea of how expensive cybersecurity is, the U.S. government has budgeted $15 billion dollars to it in 2019.
I’m Convinced. Now What?
By now you are probably convinced that your coffeehouse’s free Wi-Fi is not safe. You can use it, but you need to do a few things first. Install anti-virus software. Splurge a little and pay for a comprehensive package. There are free versions available, but we recommend using a paid version. In part because a free version often just covers the basics. See a comparison of the best antivirus software of 2018 here.
Use the firewall on your computer. A firewall is part of your operating system. You need to go into your security settings to turn it on. (It’s usually off by default.) A firewall can keep out data that can be harmful to your computer. It also can protect you from hacking. Hackers send out calls (known as “pings”) to random computers in hopes of getting a response. If they receive a response, they know that computer’s firewall is down.
What Makes a Good VPN?
You should consider which VPN features will meet your needs. For coffeehouse free Wi-Fi, select one that has stealth technology. Some public Wi-Fi networks block VPNs. Vendors use stealth technology to trick computer networks into thinking you’re VPN is regular traffic. If they don’t know it’s a VPN, they won’t try to block it. Connection speeds are also important. VPNs with more available servers usually mean faster connections. We highly recommend selecting a paid VPN from a trusted vendor over a free version. Paid versions are more robust. It’s too important to your security to skimp on a free version. VPNPro compares several vendors.
There are other ways to make your coffeehouse a safe place to surf the web. Password protect all your devices. When you type in a password or code, block the screen with your hand or body. Keep your fellow coffee drinkers from seeing your work by placing a security screen on your laptop. When you leave the table, bring your devices with you. A bit of a hassle, but worth the extra effort.
With a VPN, antivirus software, and some good security habits, you can drink your coffee and have your free Wi-Fi, too.