Using WLAN hotspots safely – 5 important tips

Anyone who regularly travels in public WLAN networks with a smartphone, tablet or notebook exposes themselves to additional dangers, as hackers can inercept and read the data packets transmitted. Our practical tips will help you trick data thieves in the future.

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Free WLAN Hotspot Security Tips

In a café or restaurant you can quickly connect to the Internet: Free hotspots make it possible – but they are also dangerous.

No matter whether on public transport, in a café or at the airport – free WLANs are now omnipresent. WLAN also plays an important role on holiday. A survey carried out on behalf of Bitkom showed that 73 percent of German holidaymakers attach great importance to WLAN access.

However, anyone travelling in other people’s WLANs should be aware that this is not always safe: all data sent and received by the notebook and mobile device is generally routed unencrypted via the hotspot provider’s router. This opens the door to misuse.

Listening to this data is not particularly complicated. Hackers only have to install special software such as WLANSniffer NetStumbler or the all-round tool Cain & Abel, set up the corresponding routines and can then record all network traffic and analyze it at their leisure.

What doesn’t pose a great danger when surfing the Internet looks completely different when sending and receiving e-mails, shopping on the web or doing home banking. If this data is transmitted unencrypted, passwords of e-mail accounts, shopping portals and online bank accounts can be spyed out relatively easily. The same applies to all the apps you have installed on your smartphone and tablet.

But you’re not at the mercy of the hustle and bustle. Please note the following tips for using free WLAN hotspots safely.

Test whether you are connected to the right WLAN

If you are sitting in a fast food restaurant, in a branch of a well-known café chain or in the tram, you normally have little to worry about. Although unencrypted data can also be spyed on here, it is unlikely that restaurant operators, entrepreneurs or the city will want your data.

However, before you establish a new connection to a free WLAN, you should at least take a look at the name of the wireless network – also known as SSID. A popular hacker trick is to give the WLAN network a similar sounding name.

No automatic connection to open WLANs

Many mobile devices are able to automatically connect to unprotected WLANs. In principle, this feature can be seen as helpful as it ensures that smartphones and tablets can go online over a wireless network without any user intervention. However, since most users have set their email apps to automatically search for new email, this means that access data is sent via unknown hotspots.

If you want to be on the safe side here, you have to switch off the WLAN completely. As soon as the user is within range of a known free WLAN again, he switches the function on again.

Notebook and tablet go online via mobile phone

If you’re on the go with your notebook or tablet, you usually have your smartphone in your pocket. And since modern smartphones support tethering, i.e. they can provide Internet access for other devices themselves, it’s no problem to set up your own WLAN, which you can use to go online with the other device. Thanks to tethering, you can go online with a device via the mobile connection of your smartphone.

On iPhones, you can access this feature by switching to Settings and selecting Personal Hotspot. On Android smartphones, tap Tethering and Mobile Hotspot in the settings under Network Connections. Since you go online using tethering via the mobile network, this procedure is only recommended if a flat rate is included in your mobile phone contract.

HTTPS instead of HTTP – for significantly more security

Even though more and more websites are now using encrypted data transmission, as you can see from the fact that the URL starts with https instead of http, unencrypted online offers are in the majority. To make life more difficult for potential data thieves, you should refrain from visiting unencrypted web sites that require you to log in with a username and password when surfing over a free WLAN.

Always go online over a VPN connection

The safest solution for using free WLANs without any worries is via VPN. All data is routed via the VPN provider’s server. The advantage: The data sent via this connection, also known as VPN tunnel, is encrypted.

However, to use VPN on notebooks and mobile devices, you need to install an additional app and spend money using the service. CyberGhost VPN (from 3.50 euros per month), Hide My Ass (from 5.99 euros per month) and VyprVPN (from around 4 euros per month) are recommended because they are inexpensive, easy to use and available for Android, iOS and Windows.

By installing a VPN provider’s app on your mobile device or notebook, you can surf public WLAN networks safely and undetected. It is not unimportant that when using VPN you can also travel abroad with a German IP address. Such a thing plays a role if certain websites or services such as Twitter are blocked in your holiday destination. Nice side effect: If the VPN service also offers foreign servers, you can bypass Geo-IP blocks and use services that are not actually offered in Germany.