HOUSTON - The airport, the mall, a restaurant -- these are all places that offer free public Wi-Fi, giving you easy access to social media, email and things like online banking.
But connecting to a public network can give a "free pass" to identity thieves.
It's easy and it's convenient connecting your phone, tablet or laptop to free Wi-Fi in public places. But doing so can also expose personal information to crooks.
"One of the problems is that we're so exposed to so much information and communication right now, I think people overlook the importance of data and personal data, and so we put our info everywhere," said Dr. Eduard Persichetti with the FAU Center for Information Security.
No matter where you access it, free public Wi-Fi exposes you to what information security experts called "a man in the middle."
"It's really what it is. It's a man in the middle," Persichetti said. "They sit in there and they intercept the communication before it goes to the actual source, so they pretend to be the Wi-Fi that you're trying to communicate with."
The technology thieves do it with something called a pineapple device.
"Actually, now, these devices are very cheap and easily accessible, and so it's like you're communicating with these guys in plain text," Persichetti said.
A pineapple device can also impersonate a hotspot because no password is required.
"The moment you connect to one of those sites, someone is listening in, your information goes out and it's recorded," Persichetti said.
A technology "thief" can also alter your data and know exactly where you are.
"There's location services, so there's a lot of information we don't even realize is stored there," Persichetti said.
Protecting yourself is as simple as turning off Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, and relying on a secure data plan when in public. You may burn data, but personal information will be secure. You can also add an extra layer of protection by buying a virtual private network, or VPN.
"Those are amazing. They are encrypted. Those are what the professionals use," Persichetti said.
While data thieves are typically looking for anything that can make them money, don't forget your location is also a valuable piece of information. I's often revealed through social media accounts that can be hacked using public Wi-Fi.
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