It’s awesome that most restaurants and coffee shops come with free WiFi these days. You can write that term paper with a constant drip of coffee, but do you know the risks of open wireless networks? Malicious folks can very easily hang out at the local coffee shop with free WiFi, scan other computers for passwords or credit card information used online, shadow computers to see exactly what others are doing, and even pass viruses to those computers or steal files.

There are several ways you can protect yourself, though, from people trying to peek into your data.

1. Turn off sharing! When you are on a home network, you usually want to share your printers and files so you can access them from whatever computer you are using at the moment. On a free wireless network, that can spell disaster. In Windows, go to the Control Panel, access the Network and Internet Sharing Center, and click “Change Advanced Sharing Settings.” You should see the options to turn off network discovery, file and printer sharing. On a Mac, it’s located under System Preferences and then “Sharing.” Uncheck the boxes to stop sharing.

2. Invest in antivirus software. Often, a good antivirus program can pop up and warn you against people trying to access your information. When you see that pop-up, close up shop and get your coffee somewhere else. Because while you can deny the unwanted access, there may not be a way to prevent them from trying other methods. If you know someone is being malicious on that network, why take the risk of sticking around? Some antivirus programs come with a firewall that can also help prevent unwanted access.

3. Ask the business what their wireless network name is. Someone can set up their own wireless network that looks similar to the correct one, causing users to connect to their network instead! They can even try to block the right one from broadcasting its signal, so it looks like theirs is the correct one.

4. Always use two-factor authentication. Whether it’s your social media profiles, your bank or your email, if they offer two-factor authentication, use it. Two-factor authentication uses more than just your password to access your account. For example, your password plus a code that’s texted to your phone, or your password and then an image you select. It’s definitely more secure than just a straight password, and almost impossible for people on a free WiFi network to steal.

5. Use a Password Manager. Speaking of passwords, you should also store all your passwords in a program designed for password creation and retention. These programs make it super easy to have unique, difficult passwords for every website you visit. They are then stored in an encrypted format and are unable to be stolen over free WiFi.

6. Connect Through a VPN. Finally, if you really just don’t want to deal with the security headache of using the free WiFi but still want to be able to work on the go, you can either get a wireless hotspot from your mobile provider, or you can use a VPN. VPN stands for “virtual private network.” It transports your computer digitally to a private network using the free WiFi. This will make all your Internet traffic travel through the private network, as opposed to transmitting over the WiFi. A quick search of VPN providers can help you get the ball rolling if you want to go that route.

Definitely have fun, get your homework done, and be safe when using public WiFi!

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Sarah Kimmel

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Sarah Kimmel

Sarah is a mom who fixes technology (as her daughter puts it, “you can fix ANYTHING electronic!”). She has been in the IT industry supporting small businesses for over 10 years, and now offers free tech help and tips on her blog,, where she helps families navigate the awesome and sometimes scary world of technology.

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