FTC Offers Tips on Wise Use of Wi-Fi Networks

Tips for Consumers

The Federal Trade Commission, the nation’s consumer protection agency, today released tips to help people protect their personal information while they use public wireless networks – Wi-Fi hotspots in coffee shops, libraries, airports, hotels, universities, and other public places. While convenient, public Wi-Fi networks often are not secure.

When using wireless networks, it’s best to send only personal information that is encrypted – either by an encrypted website or a secure network. Encryption scrambles information sent over the internet into a code so that it’s not accessed by others. An encrypted website protects only the information sent to and from that site. A secure wireless network encrypts all the information sent over it.

To determine if a website is encrypted, look for https at the beginning of the web address (the “s” is for secure), and a lock icon at the top or bottom of the browser window. Some websites use encryption only on the sign-in page, but if any part of the session isn’t encrypted, the entire account could be vulnerable. Look for https and the lock icon throughout the site, not just at sign in.

Most Wi-Fi hotspots don’t encrypt the information sent over the internet and are not secure. If a person uses an unsecured network to log in to an unencrypted site – or a site that uses encryption only on the sign-in page – other users on the network can see what is sent. New hacking tools – available for free online – make this easy, even for users with limited technical know-how. A Wi-Fi user’s personal information, private documents, contacts, family photos, and even login credentials could be up for grabs.

Use these tips to tell if a Wi-Fi network is secure:

  • If a hotspot doesn’t require a password, it’s not secure.
  • If a hotspot asks for a password through the browser simply to grant access, or asks for a password for WEP (wired equivalent privacy) encryption, it’s best to proceed as if it were unsecured.
  • A hotspot is secure only if it asks the user to provide a WPA (wifi protected access) password. WPA2 is even more secure than WPA.

Use these tips for a safer Wi-Fi experience:

  • When using a Wi-Fi hotspot, only log in or send personal information to websites that you know are fully encrypted. The entire visit to each site should be encrypted – from log in until log out. If you think you’re logged in to an encrypted site but find yourself on an unencrypted page, log out right away.
  • Don’t stay permanently signed in to accounts. After using an account, log out.
  • Do not use the same password on different websites. It could give someone who gains access to one account access to many accounts.

To learn more about protecting your privacy online and what to do if your information is compromised, visit OnGuardOnline.gov.

The FTC works to prevent fraudulent, deceptive and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint or get free information on consumer issues, visit ftc.gov or call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357); TTY: 1-866-653-4261. Watch a new video, How to File a Complaint, at ftc.gov/video to learn more. The FTC enters consumer complaints into the Consumer Sentinel Network, a secure online database and investigative tool used by more than 1,800 civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.

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