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While many people think the key to staying safe online during the holidays is simply making sure they don’t give their card number to non-reputable online vendors, there’s another aspect to keeping yourself safe even if you’re not shopping.

With the holidays come vacations and time spent away from the office, your house, and your safe and secure Wi-Fi. I know i’ve fallen into the free Wi-Fi trap on many occasions, especially while traveling in different countries, and it’s a trap that can prove especially dangerous.

This was tested and proven earlier this year by a 4th grader right here in Austin. Evan Robertson set-up a public Wi-Fi network at multiple malls all over the city and presented shoppers with the most ridiculous terms to see if they would agree. These terms included:

  • “Harvesting personal information”
  • “Reading and responding to your emails”
  • And “allow[ing] any and all data you transmit to be received, reused, modified and/or redistributed”

Now if people actually read to the bottom of these terms they would see that Evan also specifically told them they shouldn’t connect, and that he loved cats (ha!). As insane as these terms were, out of the 76 people that connected 40 of them actually accepted them.
So many of us are conditioned to accept the terms and conditions for free Wi-Fi without realizing what those terms mean, and what can happen after you’ve accepted them. So this holiday season we want you to be safe, and secure, while on vacation or even just doing a little shopping at the mall.

We’ve put together a short, but sweet, list of tips to keep you from falling into a free Wi-Fi trap:

  • Evaluate whether you should be using Wi-Fi for what you’re trying to do. While having Wi-Fi is convenient and helps keep data usage to a minimum, doing things like online banking and viewing work files probably aren’t appropriate for public Wi-Fi.
  • If you’re working, use a VPN. Even though one more step might feel like a hassle, the extra protection is well worth it.
  • Look for the little green lock at the top of your webpage. This is the symbol of an encrypted connection, and helps make sure that if someone gains access to that Wi-Fi, your messages are unreadable.
  • Stop sharing. If you share things like your music library, files, or printers make sure that this setting is disabled before hopping on a public Wi-Fi network.
  • Look around. If you’re about to connect to “Starbucks Wi-Fi” but there isn’t a Starbucks around you, it’s probably a fake network.
  • Stop auto connecting. While many smartphones have a setting built in that doesn’t allow it, if you are using a device that is set to auto-connect without your permission, you’re leaving your device vulnerable to a multitude of fake networks waiting to steal your information.
  • And as always, keep your device up to date, and don’t update on a public Wi-Fi. Keeping your device updated ensures that you have the latest security patches, and it’s another level to make sure your information stays private.

While connecting to public Wi-Fi is easy and convenient, especially when traveling or trying to look up a review on the hottest gift this holiday season (make sure to check our our gift guides part 1 and part 2 if you need some inspiration!) it’s not always the best thing for you. Be cautious and smart, use this list and have a happy holiday season!