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More Laptop Travel Safety Tips

Friday, September 21st, 2007 by | Filed Under: Security Help

I saw your tip the other day about safely traveling with your laptop and I was wondering if you could go a little more into the hot spot aspect of it. I’ve heard some stories before about airport hot spots and I would just like some more information on that if you have any. Thanks for your help!

Yes, after running the article on laptop travel safety the other day, I have been getting e-mails left and right from all of you with comments on what you’ve experienced and so on. It’s been very interesting reading through all of those and I thank you for sending them my way. Just yesterday, I received today’s question in my e-mail and shortly after that, another reader e-mailed me and gave me some great information on this very subject. I literally said to myself, “Wow, this couldn’t have come at a better time!” So, as you can see, I’m very excited to bring this tip to you today. If any of you travel quite frequently, I think you’ll really get some good use out of it!

If you spend a lot of your time at the airport, you’ve probably noticed that the Internet access features have changed a lot in the past couple of years. Nowadays, you can find a wireless access point on every corner of every waiting area, in all of the restaurants, coffee shops, etc. They’re everywhere! And because of that, it’s so easy to just whip out your laptop and start using the Internet right in the middle of the airport. Now, while that’s very convenient and high-tech, you also have to keep in mind that, in reality, you’re using your computer in front of everyone around you. Everything on your laptop is basically there for all to see. That is, if you’re not careful!

Don’t get me wrong, airport hot spots are perfectly safe to use, but you still need to be cautious of your surroundings. For example, if you’re at the airport, looking around for an available hot spot to use and you see one labeled as “Free WiFi” (or a similar name), beware. That kind of name should put an immediate red flag in your mind, because that name seems to be the basis behind a new hot spot scam that is hitting airports all over the world. Yikes! Read on for all the details.

Basically, what happens is a hacker sets up their own hot spot at the airport and they just wait for someone like you to come along and connect into it. Once you log in, the hacker can then root around your laptop and create havoc. For example, they can easily steal your username and password information, they can look at your personal files, they can lift your credit card information to steal your identity, they can infest your computer with spyware and other types of malware, they can spread spam all over your PC and so on and so on. There’s no telling what can happen when a hacker gets free access to your personal computer. And this is especially true with Windows Vista users, because it’s even harder to identify something like this on a Vista computer.

So, what’s really happening when you start using the “Free WiFi” hot spot? Well, like I said before, hackers are able to generate their own hot spot and while you think you’re connecting to the Internet, you’re actually tapping into the hacker’s ad hoc, or peer-to-peer network. It’s usually set up by someone sitting near you in the airport, but with so many people using laptops these days, it’s hard to figure out just who it is. So, while you’re still able to use the Internet and browse the Web through their connection, all of your traffic actually goes to their computer for them to steal, etc. Plus, if you’re set up to allow file sharing, the attacker can get in to your files and tamper with whatever they please. How clever, huh?

Of course, while all of this is going on, you have no idea whatsoever. You think you’re just surfing the Web like you normally do and that nothing is out of the ordinary. Once the hacker has what they want from your PC, they leave you alone and it’s not until a few days later that you realize something has gone terribly wrong. And by that time, you have left the airport, so you have no way of knowing who the attacker was. And on top of that, the next time you turn on your laptop, that ad hoc connection could still come through and if it does, it could broadcast your “Free WiFi” network ID for anyone to see. Others could then connect into it without your knowledge and do even more damage to your computer. How awful!

This type of scam is, unfortunately, becoming more popular everyday. There have been several reports of it going on in some of the bigger airports in the U.S., including LaGuardia in New York, the O’Hare in Chicago and LAX in Los Angeles. Several security companies have been doing some surveys in some of the bigger airports as well and the results aren’t good. For example, at the O’Hare, more than 20 ad hocs were found during one survey and 80 percent of them were advertising the “Free WiFi” connection. This type of thing is bound to happen in other popular locations sooner or later as well, such as coffee shops and universities.

So, now that you know all about this new type of scam, please promise me you’ll be extra careful when using your laptop at the airport. If you’re going to use it, don’t ever fall for one of the “Free WiFi” advertisements. You’re better off sticking with the hot spots the airport itself provides for you. Don’t just go around looking for a connection. Make sure it’s secure and that you’re going to be safe while using it. You could even ask an airport employee if you have to. Your computer holds so much of your life in its hands, so it’s best to take a little extra time and find a hot spot that will protect you. I would hate to hear about anything like this happening to any of you!

Stay safe out there, my traveling buddies!

~ Erin

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