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News & Features | Sep 30th, 2011

FTC Consumer Complaints Put a Face on Public Wifi Hacking Victims

Jan Legnitto

What do a truck driver, an airline passenger, a company employee traveling on business and a member of the naval reserve training for a Mideast mission have in common? They’re all consumers who became unknowing wifi hacking victims while they were using public hotspots.

We only know that because we filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Federal Trade Commission to find out who was getting hacked on public wifi.

The results of that FOIA request were shocking. That’s probably because we rarely get to see firsthand accounts of what happens to the legions of nameless faceless victims of hotspot hacking. As these four FTC cases demonstrate, they’re Americans from all walks of life, just like you and me. And none of them had a clue what was about to hit them when they logged into a wifi hotspot.

How Hotel Wifi Compromised Internet Security and National Security

A member of the U.S Naval Reserve training for a Middle East mission logged onto the Internet using his hotel wifi. The same day, he noticed an unauthorized $90 charge to his checking account. The settings on his computer had been changed to a foreign language. The details of his mission stored on his laptop had been compromised.

Why an In Flight Wifi User Had to Face the Music

Two days after using a credit card to purchase in-flight wifi on a trip from San Francisco to Chicago, an airline passenger discovered thousands of dollars of unauthorized charges from iTunes on his card.

Businessman Found Out the Hard Way That Hackers Mean Business at Wifi Hotspots

During a business trip, a company employee surfed websites using public wifi networks. It was only after returning home that he noticed his company’s computer had been hacked. Click tracker and an off-site vault had been set up; the antivirus software had been disabled; and the on/off setting for wifi transmission had been locked in the on position. As a result, the employee’s personal identifying information was compromised.

Trucker Shocked to Learn Hotspots Are Sweet Spots for Hackers

A trucker routinely used his credit card at truck stop hotspots without thinking much about it. Then one day, he made a startling discovery. When the trucker tried to pay for a car part using his credit card, he was told that his bill was past due. Someone had changed the address on his account to a place in Missouri and made $1060 of unauthorized charges.

What’s amazing is that many victims of cybercrime continue to expose their sensitive information when they use wifi hotspots. A November, 2010 survey of 2600 people in the UK, Australia and the U.S. by Research Now for the security firm Webroot found that one in seven respondents had already become the victim of credit, debit or PayPal fraud last year. Yet the survey found regular use of wifi hotspots for e-commerce. Twenty-three percent of those polled said they feel safe using public wifi networks. And 18% said they’d be likely to charge gifts while they were logged into a free wifi hotspot. Talk about living dangerously!

If you don’t want to become wifi hacking statistic, follow these steps:

  • Only connect to wifi networks that you absolutely trust. Disconnect from the wifi network when you stop using it.
  • Turn off file sharing. Hackers can actually get into your laptop and access information in shared folders.
  • Run a comprehensive security suite and keep it up to date to prevent spyware, viruses and malware from invading your laptop.
  • Don’t share sensitive information at public hotspots. Remember, even innocuous logins to web mail accounts could give hackers access to important data that could lead to credit card theft and identity theft.
  • If you think you’ve been hacked at a wifi hotspot, file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission just like the folks in our story: https://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov/FTC_Wizard.aspx?Lang=en
  • The best way to protect your sensitive information is to use a Virtual Private Network like PRIVATE WiFi™. VPNs encrypt the data traveling to and from your laptop. Encryption protects your Internet communication from being intercepted by hackers at wifi hotspots.

Remember, hackers are invisible. So you need to be invisible, too. For more tips on how to protect yourself against hotspot hacking, check out our other blog posts:

Flying Naked: Why Airplane Wifi is so Unsafe

Airport Hotspot Hacking Takes Off

Evil Twins: The Dark Side of Using Private Wifi Hotspots

Firesheep Ups the Threat Level at Wifi Hotspots: How You Can Protect Yourself

In the meantime, if you were hacked at a hotspot, we’d like to hear what happened. Drop us a line and share your story.

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