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How safe are you when you use public Wi-Fi?

Things are better than they used to be but vigilance is the watchword

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Photo (c) Monkey Business Images - Getty Images
It's hard to go anywhere these days without being offered use of free Wi-Fi.

Hotels, coffee shops, malls, the airport -- just about everywhere and everyone can connect you to the internet. But are these public access points safe? Are hackers lurking, just waiting to attack your phone, computer or tablet?

The good news is that public Wi-Fi is a lot safer than it use to be. But that doesn't mean you don't have to be vigilant.

When you go online, everything you have -- financial information, email and social media -- is there to be picked through.

Back in the day, most websites didn’t use encryption to scramble the data and protect it. Now they do. But how can you tell?

It's quite simple, actually

In the address bar, look to the left of the website address for a lock symbol or https. If it's there, you're protected.

This also works on a mobile browser, and while it can be hard to tell if a mobile app uses encryption, the majority do.

Protecting your personal information online

Among the best ways to stay safe is to create and use strong passwords. Use at least 12 characters or, if you want to keep it short, mix uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers and symbols.

Srini Kadiyala, CTO of OvalEdge, a data governance consultancy, says it's smart to avoid reusing the same passwords across many sites.

"Instead," he says, "get a password manager, use multi factor authentication to access it and randomly generate each password you need."

Make sure your security software, operating system, and internet browser are up to date. The phone’s operating system should be up-to-date, too. Automatic updates should be turned on to keep up with the latest protections.

And then there are scammers

Keep an eye out for scammers, those who pretend to be someone they’re not, like a representative from a well-known company or the government.

They also create fake websites and encrypt them to make you think they’re safe when they’re not.

Kadiyala notes that a simple way to limit vulnerabilities is to try and have devices that you only use for public access.

"Keeping one Wi-Fi network for computers and phones or tablets and a separate Wi-Fi network for smart devices," he says, " limits the extent of a possible attack."

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