How safe is that Wi-Fi hotspot?

December 11, 2009 4:12:54 AM PST
Anyone with a laptop knows how convenient wireless internet access can be. Many businesses offer Wi-Fi hotspots and people are happy to use them.

"It's so easy. I sit in this coffee shop hours and hours and hours a day. It's kind of like my office," explained Wi-Fi user Phillip Carter recently in Raleigh.

But, experts say there are dangers to web surfing in Wi-Fi hotspots because wireless technology has become fertile ground for hackers and thieves.

ABC11 Eyewitness News drove down Fayetteville Street with Jason Burris of IT training company Anfield Inc. He had his computer set up to ding every time it found a new wireless network. Within seconds, it was dinging continuously.

"Are you surprised at how much it's picking up right now?" asked I-Team reporter Jon Camp.

"No, this is pretty common," Burris responded.

Burris explained that while open networks are convenient, your personal information could be at risk. Depending on what website you go to, hackers can use open networks to lift usernames and passwords even on sites that appear to block out password information.

"Here's where we went to the website," Burris showed ABC11. "There's my login information."

"It's just being broadcast out there," he continued.

What's worse, on some open networks, hackers can literally redirect you away from legitimate websites to ones they've created.

"Say if I go to [a bank web page] on an open access point and type in my username and password and then it loads up a blank page, I might just think the connection was dropped, but it could have been a fake website that a hacker set up and now he's got my username and password that he just recorded," Burris said.

It's also dangerous if you have an unsecured wireless network in your home.

"If you have an open access point and your neighbor wants to download illegal movies or music or some type of illegal content, he can easily get on your network and begin downloading all this stuff and from your internet carrier's point of view it looks like you're doing this activity," said Burris.

That can lead police to your door. Detective Tom Mallown, with the Durham Sheriff's Office says it happens more often than you'd think.

"If a person knows how to access open networks, then essentially they've got carte blanche to do whatever they want on that connection," he offered.

Mallown says usually, it's fraud - someone using a stolen credit card to buy things online using someone else's unsecured network that's traceable only to the person who owns that network. In one case he knows of, it was extortion with the threat of violence.

"I believe they were just driving around finding open wireless IP networks," he explained.

Both Burris and Mallown are quick to say that wireless technology isn't the problem. The problem is awareness. And experts agree that if you're going to use an unsecured wireless network, then think about what you're doing. If you're on an open network, don't use sites that require passwords and don't use the same password for multiple sites. That way if they do get your e-mail password, they can't use it to access your bank account.

Burris says most large banks have special encryption software, but if a hacker already has your login information from a less secure website, then they can use it to get in.

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