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

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Encrypt your e-mail

When you send an e-mail at a hot spot, it goes out "in the clear" -- in other words, unencrypted -- so that anyone can read it. A lot of e-mail software allows you to encrypt outgoing messages and attachments. Check how to use yours, and then use it at a hot spot. In Outlook 2003, select Options from the Tools menu, click the Security tab, and then check the box next to "Encrypt contents and attachments for outgoing messages." Then click OK.

Figure 3
Encrypting outgoing e-mail in Outlook 2003 (Click image to see larger view.)

Carry an encrypted USB flash drive

USB flash drives are cheap, and getting cheaper by the day. For about $50, you can buy a 2GB flash drive, which is more than enough space to carry Windows, the applications you use and the data you need. Make sure to get a drive that can use encryption. Then install Windows, your applications and your data on it.

On your laptop, keep no private data on your hard drive. When you connect at a hot spot, boot from your USB drive. That way, even if someone somehow gets into your PC, they won't be able to read or alter any of your data, because the data is encrypted on the USB drive.

Protect yourself with a virtual private network

Most hot spots are not secure and don't use encryption. That means anyone with a software sniffer can see all of the packets you send and receive.

But you don't need to rely on the hot spot for encryption. For a fee, you can use a virtual private wireless network that encrypts your connection. There are several available, but the one I've been using for years is hotspotVPN, and it hasn't failed me yet.

No special VPN software is needed; you can use XP's or Vista's built-in VPN capabilities. The service costs $8.88 per month, or is available in one-, three- and seven-day increments for $3.88, $5.88 and $6.88. You can also get more secure VPN encryption from the service for between $10.88 and $13.88 per month.

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