Doros Hadjizenonos. Supplied
Free and low-cost public wi-fi is a great value-add when you don’t want to blow the budget on mobile data. But while everyone enjoys the free access at hotels, event venues and malls, we also need to take cyber-precautions - particularly in public wi-fi hotspots. 

That’s because cyber criminals want your money as much as any pickpocket does. If they can’t steal your money, they will steal your information and sell it on the dark web.

To ensure you and your personal information stay safe while you browse, here are a few practical tips:

1. Stay connected without losing your shirt. While many public wi-fi access points are safe, criminals looking to steal your data will often post fake wi-fi access points so they can intercept any data between you and your online shopping site, bank, home security system or wherever else you browse to. This is particularly common at airports and coffee shops.

This can happen without you being aware of it. New smart devices automatically search for known connection points, such as your home wi-fi.

Sophisticated attacks simply ask your device what service set identifier (SSID) they are looking for, and when your phone tells them it is looking for your home router, it replies with, “You’re in luck! I’m your home router”. And your phone, not being nearly as smart as it thinks it is, connects.

Here are things you can do to protect yourself from fake wi-fi connections:

* Ask the place of business for the name of their wi-fi SSID before you connect.

* Install VPN software on your device so you can make secure, encrypted connections.

2. Avoid weak passwords. We tend to use a lot of websites that require a login, so remembering a unique password for each site may be impossible. It’s why people tend to use the same password for everything. However, if someone on a public wi-fi hotspot intercepts and steals your password for one account, they have your password for everything.

Here are a few things to do:

* Use a password vault that stores the user name and password for each of your online accounts. Then, all you have to remember is the single password for that application.

* Create a tier of applications - one set for social media, another for where you pay your bills, and another for your bank.

* Set a reminder on your calendar to change those passwords every few weeks.

* When possible, use two-factor authentication.

3. Keep your devices updated. One of the most successful attack vector hackers use is targeting vulnerabilities that are already well known, but which are not being protected against. The developers of your devices, as well as the apps you run on them, all issue regular security updates designed to protect you from known threats. Download and run these updates as soon as they become available.

4. Monitor your social media. Be cautious about announcing on social media that you’re away from home. It can put your home at risk. Don’t post personal information that could be used by an attacker to create a legitimate-looking email with malicious content.

Doros Hadjizenonos is the regional sales director for Fortinet Southern Africa.

PERSONAL FINANCE