Imagine a group of public Wi-Fi users, busily tapping away on their laptops in a bookstore or library. What if one of them is up to something besides updating a blog or organizing a fantasy football league?
What if that one person is trying to steal the identities of the people around him?
A nonprofit group dedicated to the prevention of identity theft has started a project aimed at helping online consumers protect themselves when they use public wireless Internet connections.
During the month of August, the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC) is conducting a survey to analyze the habits of public Wi-Fi users. “This study will help us understand where consumers may be putting themselves at risk and assist them accordingly,” ITRC social media coordinator Nikki Junker said in a press release.
Understanding the threat
Earlier this year, Javelin Strategy & Research reported that more than 11.6 million American adults fell victim to some form of identity fraud in 2011. Somewhere around 10 percent of all cases in a given year involve online methods, according to various estimates.
One of those methods is through public Wi-Fi, which transmits information through radio waves. It’s not hard for identity thieves to take their computers to wireless hotspots, turn on some special software and start trolling through these signals looking for account numbers, passwords and other sensitive information.
Take steps to protect yourself
If you use a mobile wireless provider instead of public Wi-Fi, you have some built-in protection against identity theft. Providers like CLEAR utilize data encryption and other security strategies to thwart online identity thieves.
ITRC doesn’t recommend using public Wi-Fi to access secure websites. In general, all online users are advised to take security steps such as:
- Avoid publishing information like your date of birth and mother’s maiden name on social media sites. (These details are often used as the answers to security questions.)
- Make sure that your computer has anti-virus software, and keep it updated.
- Don’t use obvious passwords, including your pet’s name.