4 mins

How to stay secure online on the road

Free WiFi hotspots are a Godsend when you're travelling. David Gorodyansky advises on how to use them safely – and keep your precious data from ending up in the wrong hands

iPad in a coffee shop (Dreamstime)

As more and more travellers use free WiFi hotspots to check their emails, bank balances and Facebook status on their laptops, phones and tablets, cyber-criminals are having a field day. More often than not these networks are insecure, making it incredibly easy for hackers to get hold of your personal data and use it for nefarious means.

One solution is to use a VPN – a virtual private network. A VPN channels all web activities through a personal secure tunnel and enables user online activities, sites visited, searches and personally identifiable information to always stay private. Once the realm of hardcore computer users, VPNs have have become increasingly common and easy to use. Indeed, using a VPN app like TunnelBear or AnchorFree is as easy as downloading and installing an app on your device.

Of course, in countries that censor the Internet, a VPN acts as a secure gateway to the world’s information, a boon to expats and travellers who want to know what is happening in the world or update their Facebook status in countries where it is banned, like China.

David Gorodyansky, CEO and co-founder of AnchorFree, talks to Peter Moore about the cyber dangers modern travellers face. And why a VPN should be the first thing they (virtually) pack.

More and more people are using their phones, tablets and laptops to access the internet when they are travelling. What are the dangers of doing this?

Today’s travellers expect to be able to use their laptops and mobile devices to do the same things that they do in the comfort of their own homes – whether it’s checking their bank balance, booking transport, using social media or sending emails. However, these travellers are often using unsecured WiFi hotspots in airports, hotels, cafes, restaurants and town centres.

Unsecured WiFi connections present a whole host of threats to the unaware. The primary risk is from hackers, who target unsecured networks to gather sensitive information such as credit card details and online banking log-ins and use it to steal from unsuspecting victims.

What are some of the worst-case scenarios a traveller could face?

If a hacker gathers enough information about a person, they can use this to commit identity fraud. Identity fraud can not only ruin a holiday, but damage life back home. It could directly impact personal finances and prevent you from obtaining credit cards or a mortgage until it has been resolved.

What are some of the horror stories you have come across?

We don’t tend to come across horror stories, because using a VPN drastically reduces the chances of someone being affected by many of the online security threats. However, there are many instances of individuals losing huge sums of money or even discovering that their stolen identity has been used in illegal activity. It can often take years for people to extricate themselves from these situations, and in some cases stolen money is never regained.

What is the most risky way to access your data? Hotel WiFi networks? Free WiFi in cafes?

Both of these! WiFi was designed to be convenient – but not secure. Approximately 88% of public WiFi networks are unsecured and easy for hackers to target. In addition, there has been a rise in instances of malicious software on hotel connected laptops. 

Even password secured networks are not safe – they can be cracked in most cases and are nearly useless if the hacker in question is a guest at the same restaurant or hotel, with the same WiFi access that you have been granted.

Mobile broadband has a degree of encryption, and although this has been cracked, the necessary hardware isn’t widely deployed by criminals. Researchers have demonstrated how the system can be hacked, so although it’s still more secure than alternatives, the best option is to use protective software such as VPNs.

Have you found that some countries are worse than others? Which are the worst cities for cybercrime in Europe?

Believe it or not, the UK is the worst country in Europe when it comes to identity theft. In a recent study Manchester gained the dubious honour of being the riskiest in Europe! This is an interesting statistic in that it correlates with a trend we’ve seen towards greater use of virtual private networks (VPNs) in the same city. Evidently, when residents start recognising the dangers of cybercrime, some find ways to protect themselves.

We have also seen extremely high rates of VPN usage per capita in Spanish tourist destinations such as Alicante and Barcelona. This reflects raised awareness of the dangers among some travellers, who are becoming much more privacy and security conscious and taking action before they become a statistic.

What can travellers do to reduce the risk of falling victim to cybercrime?

There are many precautions that travellers can take to protect themselves online while abroad – and many of them are actually very simple. For example, if you’re taking a laptop away with you, ensure that an antivirus programme is installed and keep it updated. Where possible, always create a strong password – that means including at least nine characters that are a combination of letters, symbols and punctuation marks.

A very basic tip – and one that is often overlooked – is to be cautious about how much information you share online in the first place; it’s never a good idea to share sensitive information on the internet.

It’s important to remove or delete unwanted cookies from your browsers frequently to protect your identity. Websites can drop cookies on your computer to track your overall online activities and create a profile for you, which can then be sold to advertisers. 

Make sure file sharing is off. By default, many computers have file sharing turned on, leaving your personal information and documents ripe for the picking by digital thieves. Although the specific steps you’ll need to follow to turn off your computer’s file sharing will vary based on its manufacturer and operating system, it’s worth looking up these procedures and implementing them.

Always keep your mobile device or laptop close at hand. A lot of sensitive data can be gleaned from your device if it is stolen. You should also be using a secure password keeper app for all your sensitive information

Finally, using a VPN will safeguard your privacy and security and allow you to be in control of your personal information online.

What are VPNs? How do they work?

VPNs, such as AnchorFree’s Hotspot Shield, secure internet communications and web browsing and protect each user’s privacy and identity online. Hotspot Shield secures all browsing by making each page you visit as secure as your banking site (turning all HTTP traffic into HTTP(S)).

VPNs create a personal, secure tunnel for each user and ensure that online activities – including sites visited, searches and personally identifiable information – stay private. In regions that censor the web, VPNs can act as a secure gateway to the world’s information, disrupting censorship and democratising the internet. In the case of our Hotspot Shield VPN, we also detect and block malware, and compress data transmissions so you can save on expensive data roaming charges when abroad – that’s another threat to your wallet for travellers.

How complicated are they for a traveller to use?

Most VPNs are incredible easy to use. All you need to do is download the software to your device and, with the click of a button, all your online activity will be secure and private.

Can VPNs be used to access things like Facebook and Twitter in countries where they are restricted?

If you are travelling abroad, you may find that the local government blocks access to certain websites or services by setting up location-based restrictions. These restrictions prevent you from accessing blacklisted websites in the respective country you are in.  Other sites and services might have their own geo-restrictions.

VPN software such as Hotspot Shield offers you access to any blocked website in the country you are staying at or living in. It bypasses geo-restrictions set by the government or other entities to unblock sites such as Facebook, the BBC or YouTube. This, combined with vastly increased privacy and security make VPNs perfect for travellers.

VPN – A traveller's case study: Wander Woman, Marie Javins, explains how she used a virtual private network to stay safe online on the road... and work in places she wouldn't have been able to otherwise. Read more...

AnchorFreeDavid Gorodyansky, is CEO and co-founder of AnchorFree. Their VPN product, Hotspot Shield, protects users from over 3 million malware threats, phishing sites, and spam. It works on Windows PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, and Android devices and offers the same benefits on desktop and mobile devices.

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