First published: 07 Apr 2020
Last updated: 11 Apr 2023

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Public Wi-Fi hotspots are found everywhere in places like your local shops, cafes, hotels, and even at some parks. They can be a convenient way to access the internet when you are out, have poor reception, or are travelling overseas. Learn more about public Wi-Fi and using it securely.

Like many things online, there are risks involved when using public Wi-Fi hotspots. They can be accessed by anyone, and are often free and unsecured. These hotspots can be an attractive target for cybercriminals, who may try to use them to steal your passwords or sensitive information.

Case Study

A NSW man recently became aware that he was a victim of identity theft.

He was told he owed over $7000 in fees to a company, for the purchase of gift cards and digital subscriptions that were sent to unknown email addresses.

On investigation, he found there were multiple inquiries on his credit report around the same time.

The first credit inquiry happened not long after travelling overseas, where he had used his laptop.

While connected to a public Wi-Fi hotspot during his trip at the airport, he had sent ID documents to his parents, including his passport and birth certificate. It turns out he had connected to a fake Wi-Fi hotspot which was set up by a cybercriminal. The cybercriminal was able to intercept his ID documents, and use them to steal the man’s identity.

It is important to be aware of the risks, and to develop secure habits when making use of these hotspots. Follow these tips the next time you are thinking about connecting to a public Wi-Fi hotspot:

Anyone can create a free Wi-Fi hotspot, including cybercriminals. Wi-Fi and hotspot names are not unique, and they can be reused by anyone. A cybercriminal may try to take advantage of this by copying and posing as a legitimate hotspot.

Ensure you are connecting to the hotspot you intend. You can do this by:

  • Checking the hotspot’s name on signage, or directly with staff at the venue.
  • Preventing your device from automatically connecting to the hotspot. Disable features such as “auto-join” or “auto connect” for public hotspots.
  • Where possible, choose hotspots that require a password. Try to avoid “open” or “unsecure” networks.
  • As an extra precaution, ‘forget’ the network in your Wi-Fi settings after you have finished using it. This will prevent your device automatically reconnecting in the future.
  • If in doubt, do not connect to the hotspot. Instead, wait until you can use a trusted network such as your home, office or mobile connection.

When a webpage is secure, the information that you send to it is encrypted and cannot be intercepted and read by cybercriminals. You can check that a webpage is secure by:

  • Looking for ‘https’ and the lock symbol in the address bar on your web browser.
  • Ensure that the webpage is what you expect. If your browser displays a warning message when you try to visit a website, do not continue. Stop using the hotspot, disconnect, and ‘forget’ it on your device.

Some devices may allow your files to be shared over Wi-Fi, which can be useful when you are at home or work. When connecting to public Wi-Fi, ensure you switch off file sharing. This will prevent a cybercriminal from potentially accessing your files, or putting malicious files on your device.

These features can vary depending on your device. To learn more about the different types of sharing options on your device, see Microsoft’s guidance for Windows and Apple’s guidance for Mac.

When joining a new Wi-Fi hotspot, you may be asked to select if a network is public or private, ensure you select public. This will also automatically disable file sharing.

Public Wi-Fi hotspots cannot always be trusted. Reconsider your need to access sensitive information, such as your online banking. If possible, wait until you are using a secure home, office or mobile connection.

A virtual private network (VPN) is a service that encrypts and secures your data when using the internet. It acts as an extra layer of protection when using public Wi-Fi hotspots. If you use public Wi-Fi hotspots frequently, install and use a reputable VPN service on your device.

When considering which VPN service to use, research each product and its company. VPN providers have access to a large amount of their user’s data, so it is important to know about their privacy policy, how they store information, and if they share it. Look at independent reviews online to make an informed, secure decision.

Other tips to stay secure

Learning to use public Wi-Fi securely is important, but it is also crucial that you follow our basic guidance to secure your devices and accounts, no matter where you might be.

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