Do you ever take your laptop on the road while mystery shopping? If you ever use wireless hotspots, you may be making your data–including passwords, credit card numbers and more–visible to others. But even wired connections are not always safe. Here are some simple steps you can take to keep your data safe.
First of all, nothing in life will ever be 100% safe and secure. However, by taking a few basic precautions you can make it harder for the bad guys to get your information. They will steal someone else’s data instead of yours.
What do they do with the data they get? They can use logins and passwords to access accounts, including PayPal and bank accounts, to transfer money from you to them. Or, they can use your credit card numbers to make purchases. One friend had his World of Warcraft account hacked after using a public connection. The armor, weaponry and gold credits his character had amassed were taken from his account.
Never connect to an unknown network. I often see “Free Public WiFi” as an option when I view available wireless networks. Often that is an access point set up by a hacker to get your information.
Even a “secure” network (requiring a password to connect) and wired connections can be compromised. You do not know who is running and monitoring the equipment, and they could be capturing data.
Installing a firewall on your laptop provides a measure of security and is a necessity for anyone who connects to the internet, whether via wireless or a wired connection. Windows and Vista come with a built-in firewall, so make sure it is turned on.
One of the most effective ways to protect your data when on a wireless network is to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN). One that I found easy to install and use is HotspotVPN.
When you install and activate the HotspotVPN service, you create a secure, encrypted connection that will not allow hackers to see your data. There is a charge for this service, starting at $8.88 a month. If you frequently use public wifi, Hotspot VPN can provide peace of mind and security that are well worth the price. I installed it on my laptop before a recent business trip, and had it up and running in minutes.
There are also free solutions that can help you to protect your data. LogMeInHamachi allows you to remotely connect to your home or office network and access your home computer. This solution requires a bit more tech savvy than HotspotVPN, but can be a good, secure solution.
To protect yourself without using additional software, use https when accessing sites where you are entering passwords and other data you wish to keep secure. You can not use https to access every site, but if you are not using a network you know to be secure (such as your home encrypted network or through a service such as HotspotVPN) you should not enter any sensitive data unless the page you are on begins with https.
Email is typically not secure, unless you have established a secure connection, such as using a VPN. Most services where you access your email via a web interface do not allow https connections. The exception is Gmail, so use https://mail.google.com/ to go to Gmail. If you are using Outlook, Eudora or similar programs to download your email, ask your email provider if they support SSL connections to encrypt your email.
So, to summarize:
- Always use a firewall when connecting to the internet.
- The safest solution is to use a secure connection via VPN.
If you are not using a VPN:
- Avoid entering sensitive data, including passwords, account numbers, etc. when using a connection other than your secure home network. If you must, make sure you are using a secure connection, where the URL begins with https.
- Email is almost never secure, unless you are using a VPN. Contact your email provider to ask how to make your email secure.
Taking some simple precautions can protect your data and keep hackers from accessing your private information. Don’t let your data fall into the wrong hands.
A big thank you to my friend Leo Notenboom for his help with this post. You can get answers to your tech questions and learn more about wireless security at: