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Public Wi-Fi security risks

If you are like most people, you ask for the wireless password the minute you've arrived at a new hotel. A recent study has shown that, on average, hotel guests connect to the Wi-Fi network within seven minutes. Or maybe you have gotten used to working for your company from the comfort of your local coffee shop once or twice a week. That’s what almost 27% of the people who work for big corporations do, according to Data Alliance. If you are doing any of these things, you should stop right away! Here's why.

Cyber criminals make lots of money by stealing the freely available information that can be gathered near and around a public hotspot. Often times, they begin by ordering a coffee, and then asking for the Wi-Fi password, the way any regular customer would do. But then, things will quickly get much more dangerous.

Once that a hacker is connected to the network, he has tools that will allow him to identify any device that is connected to the same network. Then, he can identify your previously used Wi-Fi network names. Armed with this information, he can determine the name of the company that you are working for, the places you visited during your vacation, your favorite restaurants, and much more.

How does this sound to you? Trust me, we’ve barely scratched the surface, and things will get even more interesting! As you probably know, most devices will automatically search for and connect to previously used Wi-Fi networks. It's a handy feature, because it allows you to save a lot of time. It's also a handy feature for cyber criminals, who will often times use it to re-create the same SSIDs (network names).

As a result, your smartphone will blindly connect to a network that it thinks it has used in the past, but that network is actually a new one, which was set up by the hacker only a minute ago. Not only that, but more and more people who are nearby may connect to this legitimate looking wireless network, and then start using it. This allows the hacker to get access to all their passwords, including the ones to their online banking accounts.

But that's not all! Cyber villains can also identify the phone models and the operating system versions that people are using. And let's be honest and admit that most phones aren't properly patched. This means that a simple Google search will reveal specific OS vulnerabilities, which can then be easily exploited. From there, it's only a matter of minutes until the hacker has full control over your device.

Once that this has happened, the hacker can actually see what websites you are browsing, the files that you are uploading or downloading, and so on. And the saddest part is that you don't even have to keep your phone turned on for this to happen! Lots of applications are sending and receiving data while the screen is turned off, and this is a gold mine for people who want to steal your information. As a consequence, hackers will be able to see the names of the apps that are connected to the Internet, and since most of these applications are poorly coded, they will often times be able to get their account passwords as well.

So, it is really easy to get the name of the person that is sitting next to you in the coffee shop. You can learn where she has studied, where she works, what apps she likes, what websites she bookmarks, what products she purchased in the past or is interested in purchasing in the near future, and so much more.

Advanced hackers are even able to divert Internet traffic to third-party sites that they either own or control. Then, all the confidential data that you are sending will be stored on their servers.

If you have logged into your main email account, the hacker will now have your user name and password information. It's really easy for him to change the email password, and then request password reset information for all the accounts that are using your main email address. This means that you would quickly be locked out, losing control over all your social media accounts, online banking accounts, and so on.

As you can see, public networks aren't safe at all. And yet, very few people understand the real dangers. Fortunately, now that you have learned about them, you will always avoid using free Wi-Fi. That's what I do.