Consumer Alert: Free Wi-Fi comes with privacy risk

Posted: Updated:

From millennials to baby boomers, a new study finds that Americans are doing more of their business over Wi-Fi, but many could be unknowingly putting their personal information at risk.

A study by Internet security company Symantec found that 71 percent of people consider a strong Wi-Fi connection to be a deciding factor in picking a hotel and 43 percent consider it a factor when choosing where to eat.

Free Wi-Fi, though, isn’t always safe to use.

“Free Wi-Fi does come with a certain amount of risk. Somebody could be listening in to your conversations, so you really ought to be taking a couple of steps to protect yourself,” said Kevin Haley, Symantec.

Experts say the best way to protect personal data is by using VPN software. VPN previously was only available to large companies, but it can now be purchased for personal use for a few dollars a month.

“That VPN is going to encrypt that data. So, even if someone gets ahold of the data, there's no way they can look at it,” Haley said.

Experts also advise avoiding public Wi-Fi to enter sensitive information, including credit card numbers. At the very least, the website should begin with “https.” The “s” stands for secure and means the website is doing the encrypting.

Bottom line: Free Wi-Fi is great, but it’s up to the user to make sure the connection is secure.

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