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Travel Talk

When traveling, use free Wi-Fi networks at your own risk

Chase Binder

Chase Binder

I’ll admit it.

I’ve been lackadaisical about internet security when Bud and I are traveling – be it to Burma or just down to Boston. In truth, I’ve been more concerned with paying extra data charges on my iPad and smart phone than I have been about who might be hacking into my iPad or watching my internet activity.

When a free Wi-Fi network shows up on my mobile device, I think hallelujah and join as fast as I can. But no more!

The problem

I don’t pretend to understand how it’s done, but according to experts, open or “free” Wi-Fi networks are dangerous, dangerous, dangerous.

Let’s say you are sitting at Starbucks or McDonald’s enjoying some yummy food and decide to use your phone to switch money from your savings to checking account so that you can head over to Marshalls and look for bargains. Or suppose you’re in an airport and need to use your iPad to pay a bill online before you fly off to London for the weekend. You log on to the internet using their free Wi-Fi network and are done in a flash. It’s convenient, but also risky – because your activity is wide open for cagey hackers sitting at the next table looking to steal your identity and/or gain access to your bank info.

The best way to think of it is that if you are using a free and open public network, just assume that everything you do can be seen by someone – everything! Email, bank access, passwords, account numbers.

The solution

There are a few things you can do.

One is to avoid doing any internet transactions that expose your private information when you’re on a public network. Pay bills, do your banking and access accounts when you’re home – where you presumably have your own password-protected network. Or don’t be lazy or cheap like me – use your mobile device’s data plan to access the internet instead of the public networks that offer you free access.

Or, better yet (and less costly in the long run) set up your own VPN. Sound mysterious? VPN’s are virtual private networks and have been around a long time. Think of a VPN as a private digital “tunnel” from your device to wherever you want to go on the internet. Medical practices can use them to allow practitioners to access medical records from remote locations (i.e. a doctor needs to check something from home during an after-hours emergency). Businesses use them to let people work from home.

They are encrypted. They are safe – and now they are available to individuals. Just Google the term VPN and look at the reviews and rating for the many companies that offer the service.

It’s easy

I don’t consider myself especially tech-savvy – but I’m not a complete dunce either. I decided to research the idea and take the plunge.

I ended up with Express VPN (expressvpn.com), one of the top three rated services – and one with a 30-day money-back guarantee as well a number of plans and payment options. A bonus is their excellent support service, which I did indeed have to use in the process of downloading the app on my iPad. It turned out that I hadn’t updated my iPad’s iOS software – but once I did, bingo!

I now have my own VPN which shows up as an option right alongside my Wi-Fi and Cellular Data options – an easy click. No more cautionary alerts telling me I ran out of data availability. And all for $8.32 a month.

My identity and information will now be safe in the 92 countries they serve!

(Chase Binder lives in Bow. Read her blog at travelswithchase.blogspot.com.)

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