Identity thieves and hackers can’t wait for you to connect to unsecured public Wi-Fi.

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Next time you’re sipping a latte in a coffee shop with free internet access or kicking back in a hotel that offers free Wi-Fi, you may want to hold off on connecting to “guest access” or the name of the business that comes up when looking for available internet access.

Sure, it’s easier to just click on the seemingly obvious connection choice so you can get to work or just browse online. However, whenever you access free public Wi-Fi, you’re heading into risky territory, potentially opening a gateway for hackers and identity thieves to access your passwords and other sensitive, personal information.

1. Unwittingly connect to a rogue hotspot

Criminals often set up “rogue” hotspots that you can mistake for the actual free Wi-Fi connection in a public place, according to NortonLifeLock. These hotspots may have names that are similar to the business offering public Wi-Fi. That way, the criminals can lure you into connecting to their network. Once you unwittingly connect, however, the host hacker can intercept your data and even inject malware into your connected device.

No matter how legitimate the public Wi-Fi connection looks, make sure you verify the name of the business’s guest Wi-Fi with an employee before connecting.

Find out: 5 Signs You May be a Victim of Identity Theft

2. Access personal accounts

When you access public Wi-Fi, where data over that open connection is often unencrypted and unsecure, you leave yourself open to “man-in-the-middle” attacks, according to NortonLifelock. With a man-in-the-middle attack, the cybercriminal exploits security flaws to intercept data, such as your browsing activities, passwords, financial data and purchase transactions.

If you do sign on to unsecure public Wi-Fi, Norton advises keeping software patched and up-to-date on all your devices, including your smartphone. That way, you can avoid potential virus or malware infections. Even so, never sign in to bank, credit card or other financial accounts while using unsecure public Wi-Fi.

Consider using a virtual private network (VPN) in a public place. A VPN service creates a private network from a public internet connection, encrypting all the data you send and receive, even while using a public Wi-Fi connection.

Find out: Take These 5 Steps to Prevent Debit Card Fraud

3. Shop online

Never shop or make other financial transactions online, warns cybersecurity provider McAfee. So, if using public Wi-Fi, hold off on banking, shopping or any activity that requires a password, credit card account information or your Social Security number. Instead, wait until you get home or to another secured Wi-Fi connection.

Find out: 6 Red Flags of “Going-Out-of-Business” Online Scammers

4. Leave your device unattended

Thinking about leaving your laptop at the table while you go to the coffee shop counter for another muffin? Even if you’re working on a secure Wi-Fi connection, always take your computer or other device with you to protect yourself from “eavesdroppers” who might peek at account numbers or other information they could use to steal your identity or make unauthorized transactions under your name.

5. Leave Bluetooth on in public places

According to NortonLifeLock, leaving Bluetooth on with your devices in a public place can pose a “huge risk” to your cybersecurity. That’s because a hacker could gain access to your devices using open Bluetooth signals that allow various devices to communicate with each other.

To protect your devices, Norton recommends turning off the Bluetooth function on your phone and other devices when you leave home, the office or another place with a secured connection.

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About the Author

Deb Hipp

Deb Hipp

Deb Hipp is a full-time freelance writer based in Kansas City, Mo. Deb went from being unable to get approved for a credit card or loan 20 years ago to having excellent credit today and becoming a homeowner. Deb learned her lessons about money the hard way. Now she wants to share them to help you pay down debt, fix your credit and quit being broke all the time. Deb's personal finance and credit articles have been published at Credit Karma and The Huffington Post.

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