How to protect yourself at wireless hot spots

They can be an invitation to disaster, says Preston Gralla, who offers a surefire plan to avoid security breaches

Wi-Fi hot spots in airports, restaurants, cafes and even downtown locations have turned Internet access into an always-on, ubiquitous experience. Unfortunately, that also means always-on, ubiquitous security risks.

Connecting to a hot spot can be an open invitation to danger. Hot spots are public, open networks that practically invite hacking and snooping. They use unencrypted, insecure connections, but most people treat them as if they are secure private networks.

This could allow anyone nearby to capture your packets and snoop on everything you do when online, including stealing passwords and private information. In addition, it could also allow an intruder to break into your PC without your knowledge.

But there's plenty you can do to keep yourself safe -- and I'll show you how to do that in this article. If you follow these tips, you'll be able to make secure connections at any hot spot.

Disable ad hoc mode

Little-known fact: You don't need a hot spot or wireless router in order to create or connect to a wireless network. You can also create one using ad hoc mode, in which you directly connect wirelessly to another nearby PC. If your PC is set to run in ad hoc mode, someone nearby could establish an ad hoc connection to your PC without you knowing about it. They could then possibly wreak havoc on your system and steal files and personal information.

The fix is simple: Turn off ad hoc mode. Normally it's not enabled, but it's possible that it's turned on without your knowledge. To turn it off in Windows XP:

  1. Right-click the wireless icon in the System Tray.
  2. Choose Status.
  3. Click Properties
  4. Select the Wireless Networks tab.
  5. Select your current network connection.
  6. Click Properties, then click the Association tab.
  7. Uncheck the box next to "This is a computer-to-computer (ad hoc) network."
  8. Click OK, and keep clicking OK until the dialog boxes disappear.

In Windows Vista, there's no need to do this, because you have to take manual steps in order to connect to an ad hoc network; there's no setting to leave it turned on by default.

Turn off file sharing

Depending on the network you use at work or at home, you may use file sharing to make it easier to share files, folders and resources. That's great for when you're on a secure network. But when you're at a hot spot, it's like hanging out a sign saying, "Come on in; take whatever you want."

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