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How to use Wi-Fi hotspots securely

One of the great benefits of the wireless revolution is the ready availability of Wi-Fi hot-spots – locations that offer public access to the Internet over a wireless local area network. Whether it’s a hotel lobby, the local coffee shop, or an international airport, there are usually plenty of network options to choose from.

But if you can easily access a Wi-Fi hotspot, then so can anyone else, and sharing a network with complete strangers can lead to serious security issues. However, there are some simple measures you can take to help protect your identity and personal information. Here are seven tips that will help you log on with more confidence:

Choose a secure network

When searching for a network, you will usually see a list of “Secure” and “Unsecure” networks. If possible, choose a secure option. More and more public establishments – hotels, bars, coffee shops – offer such an option and are happy to provide visitors with the password key.

Use a firewall

A firewall protects your computer from unauthorized access when you are connected to a network. Your firewall should be turned on at all times but it’s particularly important when using public Wi-Fi networks. In Windows 7, go to your Control Panel and click on System and Security. Open the Windows Firewall option and make sure your firewall is activated.

Restrict sharing options

Make sure you disable file and printer sharing options. From the Control Panel in Windows 7, choose Network and Internet and then Network and Sharing Center. Click on Advanced sharing settings and make sure the File and printer sharing and Public folder sharing options are turned off. You can also disable Network discovery, which makes your computer harder to see  by other devices on the network.

Avoid financial transactions

If you are using a public network, avoid opening sensitive files or making any financial transactions. If you have to use a credit card online, make sure the web site begins with https:// indicating the site is secure and all transaction data is encrypted. Other sites use SSL technology. In Internet Explorer, look for the padlock display to the right of the url bar.

Erase sensitive data

If you use a laptop or netbook for travel, consider storing sensitive files only on your home computer and just using the mobile option for e-mail and entertainment. Alternatively, you can carry your sensitive information on a separate storage (USB) drive and only access it when you know you are on a secure network. And never keep a word or excel file with all your sensitive passwords on your computer.

Keep your software up-to-date

Microsoft’s and Apple’s operating systems are constantly under attack and security holes are discovered – and fixed – all the time. Make sure you have the latest updates and patches for your OS. For Windows, visit http://windows.microsoft.com/en-US/windows/help/windows-update to check your settings and make sure you have all the security essentials.

Add Internet security and anti-virus protection

Consider strengthening your computer’s defenses by adding third-party anti-virus and Internet security software.

Carry your own Wi-Fi hotspot

If you're still not comfortable using public Wi-Fi networks, then you can carry your own hotspot around with you by activating the Internet-sharing feature on your smartphone. Most newer smartphones (ones that have been released in the last 12 months) have this feature, which allows multiple network-enabled devices to share your carrier's network. Usually the carrier will charge an extra monthly fee for this service, although it's now included in many data sharing plans. Just keep an eye on your smartphone's data allowance and battery level when this feature is in use, as it can be a significant drain on both.

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