Monday-Morning Moving: 7 Ways Travelers Can Avoid Wi-Fi Scams

Always beware of the "semi-official" hotel wifi.
Always beware of the “semi-official” hotel wifi.

By Sharyn Alden

There are dangers for travelers in public Wi-Fi networks. The problem is most travelers don’t know what they are, where they might be hiding or how to avoid them.

Travelers are increasingly the targets of cybercrooks for some really simple reasons. We’re careless, and we’re addicted. We can’t wait to start up our computers in crowded places like airports, theme parks, and tourist attractions like Times Square, and we don’t ever think that those places et environs are prime hangouts for hackers.

Trusting travelers who head to a local coffee shop right after touchdown and hop on a free Wi-Fi network may be asking for trouble. For starters, they may be using insecure electronic devices. So Step One for foiling hackers is pretty simple: Make sure you have up-to-date personal firewall and security software for all your machines.

However, even with firewall patches, you may be an easy mark for this new breed of hackers because you can’t spot the difference between a fake Wi-Fi spot and the real deal.

Here’s how the fake Wi-Fi scam works: You clear security at the airport or check into your hotel room, and right away you check for a Wi-Fi hotspot for your smartphone, tablet or laptop.

Meanwhile, a hacker hoping to steal your identity and financial information is nearby with an USB-based antenna that tricks you into thinking his “network” is your own hotel, restaurant, conference center or airline. So while you may have been searching for your Marriott hotel Wi-Fi you instead connect to “Hotel Wi-Fi.”

Why are you apt to connect to a fake site? The site that caught your attention looks like the site you expected, and there’s a lot of power behind the lure. Thieves often use hardware and software that makes their free Wi-Fi spot the strongest signal around. The signal may be so strong your laptop automatically connects to it when you’re searching for Wi-Fi at a coffee shop.

At this point, they’ve got you in their grasp. Once you’re connected they may ask for a credit card or personal information, including your room number. This is your first clue that your “Wi-Fi network” is actually a scam or malware that can clean you out in an instant.

Another scam that lures travelers to phony sites is the “Evil Twin” scam, also known as access-point phishing. Here’s how this scam works: Victims (often found at VIP lounges, airport clubs, hotels and conferences) are tricked into connecting to the hackers’ laptop or handheld device. When the victim connects, the hacker works on getting them to reveal personal and confidential information.

How do you prevent scams like this? One way you can stay think offensively is by searching for “suspicious” insecure networks with a tool called Skycure. Skycure differentiates between legitimate and suspicious networks. It works best in areas where there are large concentrations of people, and makes it easier to make choices about where you should and shouldn’t look for Wi-Fi connections.

Skycure also has a mobile app that provides an additional layer of protection.

Here are some more tips that can help you connect more safely and securely:

  • When in a hotel, coffee shop or office, ask for their specific Wi-Fi system instead of jumping on the free bandwagon. It may cost you a bit more—possibly a daily fee — but if you can’t pinpoint a secure network otherwise, it’s money well spent.
  • Only use passwords on websites that have a Secure Sockets Layer key at the bottom right of the web browser.
  • Avoid using hotspots, like those at hotels, when you can’t tell who is connected.
  • Use hotspots only for surfing.
  • Don’t use hotspots for buying anything online or making purchases or transactions that require account numbers or passwords.
  • Another thing to avoid: Hard as it may be, avoid using instant messaging and email at hotspots. You may giving hackers an invite to come on in if you use unsecured applications like these.

Sharyn Alden is a long-time travel writer with a media-relations business, Sharyn Alden Communications, Inc., based in Madison, Wis. Contact her at sharynalden@gmail.com.

Editor’s Note: Protect your computer with Sharyn Alden’s tips, then protect your trip with comprehensive, fast-paying travel insurance from Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection. Get it here