The Biggest Risks of Using Public WiFi While Traveling
Your bags are packed, the kids are ready to go, and you’ve got your boarding passes tucked away in your front pocket…forgetting anything?
Why, a VPN of course! Although there are a lot of different things to think about when you hit the road for a business trip or your next big vacation, oftentimes people let one of the most important aspects of their trip in a foreign city or country fall by the wayside: the security of their digital information.
With apps like Android Pay and Apple Pay becoming the norm alongside debit/credit cards as the main way people pay for things on the road, thieves have stopped trying to pickpocket your traveler’s checks. Nowadays it’s all about stealing financial information right off the devices you use, which is why it’s so important for you to always be as secure as possible the next time you log onto the web in a new place.
Here’s VPN.com’s list of the biggest threats you can face while using public WiFi when traveling, and some surefire methods you can use to prepare yourself and your family for any hacks that might come your way.
The main reason why so many thieves have moved to digital hacking techniques to pick tourist’s pockets over the years, is because most international travelers are usually desperate to hook up to any public WiFi in sight just to avoid potential roaming charges.
When traveling outside your own country, oftentimes telecom providers will charge exorbitant rates for even the smallest amount of data sent to or from your devices over the cellular networks. This means that a traveler will do everything they can to use any WiFi they get a signal to, including ignoring potential red flags that a WiFi hotspot might actually be an Evil Twin instead of the real deal.
A desperate traveler is a vulnerable traveler, and hackers around the world know this.
Getting Hacked on Public WiFi
If you thought losing traveler’s checks while you’re in a foreign country is bad, just wait and see how much losing access to all your credit cards and checking account will send your vacation or business trip off the rails.
When you’re in another country, you lose the option to head on down to your local bank and just pick up another debit/credit card in case your number gets compromised in an attack. If you rely on those little pieces of plastic to handle all your traveling expenses, a hacker will be able to cripple your entire time away from home.
Plus, oftentimes if you’re trying to avoid roaming charges you might do something like disabling data on your phone while you’re enjoying the sights and sounds of a new location. This means that if your financial details do get stolen, neither your apps or your email will be able to warn you about it in time.
This means a hacker could potentially have hours, even days of uninterrupted fun with your accounts before you even find out about it! The longer the window of time they have to compromise your data, the more cash they’ll be able to pull out before you can put a stop to it.
Not Knowing the Local Language
If you’re unfamiliar with the local language of the country you’re visiting, it can be difficult to figure out which public hotspots are legitimate, and which are Evil Twins.
This gets especially complicated if the local dialect uses symbols that you’re unfamiliar with. In order to avoid this the first option is to simply never log into WiFi outside of the hotspot that your hotel provides. But, as we mentioned earlier, this can be problematic for anyone who’s trying to avoid roaming charges but still needs to handle tasks like staying on top of your email, scheduling new activities and syncing them to everyone’s calendars, or checking your account balance to make sure everything is still where you left it.
If you have to use public WiFi, try and ask someone around you who might speak the language to translate the hotspot name for you first. Also if you’re trying to connect at a cafe or a hotel, ask an employee to verify that the WiFi name you’re trying to connect to is the one set up and managed by the establishment.
Using Airport Public WiFi
Another big honeypot for hackers is airport WiFi. We’ve already gone into detail about the many risks that travelers face when they gamble on connecting to airport WiFi, and the threats don’t just stop there. Usually airports are a hotbed for hacking activity because there are so many people just trying to hurry onto whatever WiFi they can find so they can download their boarding passes or get in touch with loved ones in case something about their flight has changed.
Similarly, if a flight gets delayed that’s when travelers want to be able to hop onto the airport’s WiFi hotspot so they can stream a little Netflix to pass the time. All of these factors add up into the perfect recipe for a hacker to run an Evil Twin attack.
Evil Twin hacks work by tricking users into signing onto a fake WiFi hotspot without the user even realizing it. For example if you were traveling to San Francisco, the official WiFi name for that airport might be “SFO-Free-WiFi”.
For an Evil Twin attack to be successful all a hacker would need to do is set up their own hotspot called “SFO-Free-WiFi-1” (or something similar), and people would sign on without even thinking twice about it. Once signed onto the hacker’s network, all traffic flowing to and from your device can be read and decrypted by a malicious third-party, including your personal and financial information in case you decide to do a little online shopping while you wait for your flight to start boarding.
One trick you can use to verify whether or not the public airport WiFi you’re signed onto is legitimate is whether or not they have a login page. In my own personal experience pretty much every airport I’ve ever been to will have you check a box for signing their terms of service before you’re allowed to actually hop on the network.
If you try to use an airport hotspot but it doesn’t prompt you with any sort of login page or terms of service, this is a major red flag that the WiFi might actually be an Evil Twin than the real deal.
How to Protect Yourself From Public WiFi Hackers While Traveling
There are a variety of tactics and techniques that every traveler (yes, even your kids) should use to protect themselves while they’re using public WiFi hotspots when traveling. Here’s a list of the most important and effective methods that will keep these attackers at bay.
- Change your passwords: Before you even leave the house, we recommend going through all of your online passwords and refreshing them with new credentials. This is a quick and easy way to guarantee that if someone has already gotten a hold of your online banking information that you won’t be left holding the bag when you’re on a plane or already touched down in a foreign country.
- Update your antivirus programs: Next, make sure that your antivirus programs are fully updated on every single one of your devices before you hit the airport. This is because oftentimes these updates can be several hundred megabytes or more, and if you’re trying to get them downloaded in locations that have slower speeds this can make it next to impossible to get them running properly once you’re already out on the road.
- Don’t login to any sensitive accounts: If you can avoid it, try not to use your devices to log into any sensitive accounts that might do a lot of damage if they happen to get breached. Some examples of this include your online bank, your hospital’s online portal (anything with medical records really), or even online shopping. Do everything you can to prevent having to enter your financial information or your social security number while you’re browsing on sensitive networks, because even with all the protection methods in the world in place you can never be 100% sure that you aren’t putting those vital pieces of information at risk.
Use a VPN When Traveling to Stop Hackers in Their Tracks
Obviously, this wouldn’t be an article on VPN.com if we didn’t recommend using a VPN! VPNs are the surefire way to prevent all of the various attacks we’ve mentioned above from being able to target you or anyone in your family.
But not all VPNs are created alike, which is why there are a few different factors you should keep in mind when selecting the service that’s right for you when traveling.
- Server locations: The first is server locations. Depending on where you’re traveling and how often, you’ll likely want to go with a VPN provider that offers server locations in 20 or more countries to guarantee that there’s always a node nearby wherever you end up in the world. The closer that a server is to your real life location, the less distance your data has to travel. The less distance between you and the server, the faster your connection will be. This is vital if you plan on doing a lot of streaming at the airport or if you have a large family and everyone needs to be on the VPN at once.
- Number of devices supported: Speaking of large families, this is where the device support number comes into play. While this may not be as important for business travelers, anyone taking a vacation with their family will want to be sure they sign up for a service and a plan that can support the same number of devices as you have people in your family (except maybe for the kids under the age of five, of course). You’ll want to be sure that every device you and your family plan to use is protected at all times, and also make sure that the VPN you choose has a killswitch feature included just in case the service ever drops off as you’re moving from hotspot to hotspot.
- Multiple encryption protocols offered: When you’re traveling, it’s likely that you’ll be hopping between a lot of different WiFi hotspots depending on your destination. The airport, the cafe outside the airport, the hotel, and so on. The issue with this is that for every new WiFi hotspot you hit, there’s a new set of rules that go along with it. These rules are generally designed to protect users from illicit traffic, but sometimes the network administrators can be a bit too overzealous and block ports or traffic types that are made for VPN traffic. This is why it’s important to go with a VPN provider that offers multiple types of encryption protocols so you can guarantee you’re always protected at every hotspot you visit. Say for example you can’t get OpenVPN traffic to go through, this would be the perfect opportunity to hop over to L2TP or PPTP traffic instead!