How to Stay Safe When You Use Airport Wi-Fi

Free airport Wi-Fi is almost as common as concourse vending machines; it's almost everywhere you look. But does the convenience of airport Wi-Fi come at the personal cost of risking your personal identity? It doesn't have to if you follow these tips.

Verify the Airport Wi-Fi Network Name
You don't need a lot of fancy equipment to create a fake Wi-Fi network. An identity thief only needs a battery-powered hotspot that fits into your hand or a small travel backpack pocket. Although it's probably harder to join a scam Wi-Fi hotspot in an airport compared to a run-of-the-mill coffee shop or restaurant, you still need to be on your toes.

Many airports will publish their Wi-Fi network names in prominent places like columns, walls, or displays near charging stations. Before you join the first network that appears on the list, read the full name of the hotspot network to make sure it matches the name posted on the official airport Wi-Fi literature.

Identical looking network names are called "evil twins" because you have to look very closely to make sure you choose the right one. You should look for some of these differences to make help spot one:

  • Capitalized words (is it FreeAirportWifi or FreeairportWifi?)
  • A different number (Airport2 instead of Airport1)
  • Special characters (i.e. Airport_1 instead of Airport1)

Look For an Opt-In Page
Another clue after you've connected to a network might be if the network has an opt-in page or not to agree to the terms of service. Most airport, hotel, and restaurant Wi-Fi networks require you to enter an email address and agree to the terms and service before you can access the network.

If the network doesn't have an opt-in page or the page looks sketchy, it could potentially be a fake hotspot.

Access Airport Lounge Wi-Fi Networks
If you can access an airport lounge, you will be joining a more secure network that isn't available to the general terminal. Reducing the number of people who can access the network also reduces the probability of identity theft. Besides having special Wi-Fi access, you might also enjoy a dedicated work space and a more relaxing environment.

Subscribe to Boingo Wireless
Your airport might also have a private Boingo Wireless hotspot too. Boingo networks are encrypted and safer than a regular public airport Wi-Fi hotspot network with their Passpoint feature.

Although you can pay for a standalone Boingo Wi-Fi plan, you can enjoy complimentary membership with the American Express Platinum Card.

Only Visit Sites with HTTPS Encryption
Most internet browsers will flash a warning page if they think you're headed to a dangerous website. If that happens, you have to either click a special button to proceed or click "Back to Safety" to return to the previous page.

Starting in 2017, more websites switched to an "https://" URL address instead of the universal "http://" that has preceded every internet website address for the last 20 years.

Every browser tells you whether or not a site is secure in a slightly different way, but you should see two common features:

  • A "locked" padlock icon
  • The words "secure" or "encrypted"

Being on a secure website doesn't mean your browsing activity is hacker proof but it makes it a lot harder to steal your information. If you need to check your email, seat selection, or book a hotel room or rental car for when you land, you can browse more carefully than a few years ago when only banking websites went the extra step to encrypt their data.

You should still try to avoid transmitting your personal data using a public airport Wi-Fi network as much as possible to keep your "internet footprint" to a minimum.

Use a VPN
Even if you join a password-protected Wi-Fi hotspot at the airport, hotel, or cafe, you should still consider using a VPN network. Connecting to a VPN (virtual personal network) encrypts all your data at the source, your computer. Only visiting "https" websites is an excellent habit, but you're relying on the website to encrypt the data after you click "Submit" on their website and the username and password were transmitted over the Wi-Fi network.

Activating a VPN browsing session immediately after you join the airport Wi-Fi network but before you start browsing creates a personal sub-network that only you can access. It's an extra layer of security that a hacker needs to break through to access your personal information.

If you've traveled for business, there might be certain work applications you can't access unless you're connected to a VPN. If VPN's are good enough to secure business laptops, a personal VPN network can be just as important to protect your personal information which can wreck your credit score and cause a lot of headaches that you wouldn't wish upon your enemies.

Disable File and Print Sharing
Now that the default storage location for many tech devices is the cloud, your laptop or tablet might be transmitting information over the public airport Wi-Fi hotspot that you didn't know about. One way to limit the transmission of delicate files is to disable the file and print sharing features on your device.

This can be done in the user settings menus.

If you have an iPhone, you might also consider disabling AirDrop which is another way to wirelessly transmit information between Apple devices.

Install the Latest Security Updates
Make sure your laptop or mobile device has the latest security updates installed. You want to make it as difficult for potential hackers to compromise your data as is humanly possible. Regularly installing firmware updates for your operating system, web browser, and apps are one way to keep your computer on lockdown.

You might also consider using a third-party internet security program, not the free Windows Defender that comes preinstalled on every PC, to block against malware and other internet threats.

Summary on Airport Wifi Safety
Using a little common sense and being extra cautious will help ensure your personal information isn't compromised on a public airport Wi-Fi network. The last thing you need is for somebody to run away with your identity while your 30,000 feet in the air and are none the wiser until it's too late.
Forbes 4/18/2018