That ‘free’ WI-Fi could be a trap

That ‘free’ WI-Fi could be a trap

RALEIGH, NC (WNCN) - "Free Wi-Fi" — They are two of the most sought after yet dangerous words in today's cyber-landscape.

We all want internet access everywhere we go these days, and criminals are taking advantage of that. As free Wi-Fi pops up practically everywhere, from parks to your local coffee shop or restaurant, security experts say there's been a spike in scammers stealing information from people who use unsecured Wi-Fi networks.

After all, when you access Wi-Fi, you're literally sending out a broadcast. Wi-Fi uses radio waves, and if the network is unsecured, anyone can be listening in. A recent study by says three quarters of people it surveyed admit to connecting to free Wi-Fi when they find it.

"There's so much identity theft these days because of this issue," says security expert Marlo Anderson.

"It's easier to use Wi-Fi. It makes my internet go faster," says mobile user Deandre Wilson. CBS North Carolina asked her if she ever worries that someone might lurk on Wi-Fi to steal her data.

"I don't think about it, but I'm pretty sure it could happen," she says.

And it does happen.

The bad guys set up fake Wi-Fi networks. The person setting up the network sets the name, so it's easy for scammers to give their traps legitimate-sounding names. But if you fall prey to the trick, they'll steal all your info using a programs like one called "The Sniffer."

"The person right next to you might be running this program, and they're able to see everything everyone is doing," explains Anderson.

Security experts say summertime is prime season for hackers who depend on vacationers searching for Wi-Fi.

"If you're accessing your bank account, if you're accessing your Facebook page and you type in a username and password, that means anybody in range would have the potential to steal data from you," says Anderson.

And then there's a low tech way of stealing your data. Bad guys will literally "shoulder surf," to watch what you are doing. That doesn't require connecting to Wi-Fi, and it highlights the needs to be aware of your physical, as well as digital, surroundings.

"I'm not really worried about that, but maybe I should be," said mobile user Jessica Urso.

To help safeguard your data you should:

  • Never use public Wi-Fi to access sensitive sites, like your bank or ones that use credit cards.
  • Only visit sites with addresses that start with HTTPS, which indicates the site is using encryption.
  • Turn off the automatic Wi-Fi connection feature on your device so it won’t automatically connect to hot spots.
  • Monitor your Bluetooth connection when in public to make sure others aren’t intercepting your data.

"You need to be vigilant out there. If you're unsure, don't do it," says Anderson.

Cyber experts say the more you use free network connections, the more likely it is that you'll suffer a security breach.

To help protect you, here is a link that will help alert you to more Wi-Fi security risks.

Email CBS North Carolina's Steve Sbraccia if you have a consumer issue.