Science and TechData Privacy and Cybersecurity


Free public Wi-Fi is fast and convenient, but comes with risks

One expert explains why you might want to use an alternative, and shares ways you can keep your data safe.
Posted at 11:21 AM, Oct 02, 2023

With help from a mobile device, people can connect to the internet just about anywhere.

"It's always fast, and it seems safe enough," said Cal Klemmer, who doesn't mind connecting to public Wi-Fi. 

The safety of public Wi-Fi can give others pause. 

"I've heard you can get all your information stolen that way," Paola Mendoza said. 

Jim Desmond, who is with Asurion, a company that provides insurance for devices, says operating systems are a lot better at detecting attacks on Wi-Fi. However, he notes that they are not foolproof. 

"If you're looking for free Wi-Fi all the time, you're probably going to get yourself into some trouble eventually," he said.

What can you do to protect your phone? Desmond prefers using a hotspot or built-in cellular connection from a trusted company. 

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If you have to use a free Wi-Fi, Desmond says to make sure it's a trusted network. He also suggests using a virtual private network, also known as a VPN, to keep your data safe.  

"So if there is a 'man in the middle,' in the café listening in, it's encrypted," he said. "It's completely unreadable to them and they can't get those credentials."

You can sign up for a VPN service for about $5 a month, according to PCMag, which lists some of the top rated services.

Another thing to be wary of, Desmond says, are public phone chargers.

He says scammers can secretly install hardware to steal your information or infect your device. While less common than other scams, Desmond says public USB port scams do happen. He suggests using power outlets to charge a device, not just the USB cord.

If you still get a notification on your phone asking if you trust a device while in public, Desmond says to say "no."

"You can still get juice from them, but honestly, I would just pull the plug altogether at that point," he cautioned. 

Chad Barriehaus says he tries to be smart when it comes to using public Wi-Fi.

"I wouldn't be doing any banking or things like that," he said."It's more for getting around, maps and stuff like that."