After our last assignment, Stasha and I had a long journey ahead of us, traveling from Florida to Ohio to visit family before a long 3-day trip to California. Throughout our travels we spent a lot of time on our phones keeping up with email, bank accounts, and submitting paperwork for Stasha’s next assignment. As fast as cellular data speeds have become, it was still tempting to connect to hotel WiFi at night for faster speeds and to keep our data usage within our plan limits. But just how safe are hotel WiFi connections?
During one of our hotel stays, Stasha and I were both on our smart phones getting caught up. I decided to try the hotel WiFi and was a little confused when two connections were available: “LaQuinta Inn” and “La Quinta Inn”. At first glance, they appear the same but one has a space between “La” and “Quinta”. A red flag immediately went up in my head and I told Stasha to STAY OFF THE WiFi. Here’s the reason.
Public WiFi spots are always risky to begin with. You’re connecting to a network that other users can connect to. Anytime you are sharing a connection with complete strangers, things can go very wrong. In this particular case, there were two connections available with similar names. It’s possible and maybe even likely that the hotel simply had two connections, one for one side of the hotel and one for the other. It’s also possible that someone had set up a fake La Quinta network. Once connected to a fake network, that person would be able to see everything I was sending and receiving and could intercept sensitive information like credit card numbers or bank login information and passwords. If I was on a laptop and the built-in firewall had been disabled, they could possibly have access to the entire contents of my computer.
So when is it safe to use a hotel WiFi connection and what can you safely do once connected? In our example, if you see more than one connection, contact the front office and find out which network is the correct one. I would personally still feel uneasy about this because most hotel clerks are not IT specialists. They may be confused and tell you either network is fine to use because they don’t know any better. This is why I stay away from hotel WiFi if anything seems out of place and more often than not, even when everything seems fine. I may be a little paranoid but in 2009 there were over 11 million reported victims of identity theft and I personally know several people who have become victims.
When I am forced to use hotel WiFi, I absolutely NEVER log into websites that could potentially expose sensitive information like bank accounts. It’s just not worth it. Even simple things like Facebook could lead to problems. For example, if your Facebook password is the same as your online bank account password (this is a bad idea btw), you’re taking a chance. It is always safer to use your cellular connection to log into a website unless you are on your home network. Cellular networks automatically encrypt all data so it is extremely difficult for someone to hack.
So to sum it up, if you can avoid hotel WiFi or any public WiFi for that matter, you should. Your phone’s cellular connection is much safer. If you don’t have a good cell signal and you absolutely have to use the WiFi, stay off of important websites that require login and avoid any online shopping where you would have to enter in a credit card. If you visit any websites that require a password, make sure it’s not the same password you use for any important websites like your online bank account. If all you want to do is play around online and catch up on news, you should be fine as long as your firewall is turned on. If you’re using a smart phone, you don’t need to worry about a firewall. Hope this helps and feel free to ask any questions you might have.