Stay safe on your Android phone while using free public Wi-Fi

A few simple steps will go a long way toward improved security.

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Free public Wi-Fi is available almost everywhere. Whether you are at the local coffee shop, department store, restaurant or bar, there is a good chance that an open Wi-Fi network is there just waiting for you to connect.

If you decide to take advantage of the offer, how can you make sure that your data stays secure? Here are some simple ways to stay safe with public Wi-Fi while on your Android device -- though many of these tips are actually true for any mobile devices.

Google has helped improve online security for everyone by strongly encouraging websites to use HTTPS through changes to their search rank algorithms. This is a welcome step that improves security without any affirmative action by users, and an HTTPS connection creates a secure, encrypted tunnel between your device and the server hosting the website that you are visiting.

A quick look at the left side of the address bar in your Chrome browser will show a green lock icon if your network traffic is protected with an HTTPS connection. Keep in mind, not every site offers an HTTPS connection, but if you have to enter a password you should look for that HTTPS icon.

There are also browser extensions that force HTTPS use when available. This helps prevent websites from defaulting to an unsecured connection and leaving your information potentially exposed to prying eyes.

I use the HTTPS Everywhere extension on Chrome when using a laptop and it works seamlessly to improve everyday security. The best part? Beyond the initial installation of the extension, HTTPS Everywhere requires no action on your part.

There is one caveat with HTTPS Everywhere: to use the extension on an Android device you will need to install the Firefox browser and the HTTPS Everywhere add-on. If you already use the Firefox browser, I strongly recommend taking this step. If not, at least try to remember to look for the HTTPS icon in the browser of your choice when visiting sensitive websites.

Another option that was once primarily the domain of technophiles and pirates is the use of VPNs (virtual private networks). There are now many free and inexpensive VPN options that are readily available and simple to use. A search for “VPN” on Google Play will show you the many choices available. If you are an occasional user of public Wi-Fi, a free VPN app that is ad supported will probably be sufficient. If you spend a lot of time with your phone while sipping your Starbucks latte, it might be worth spending the money on a paid app to avoid the ads and any restrictions the VPN may place on users of its free service. Either way, use of a VPN will dramatically decrease the risks of using public Wi-Fi and should be on everyone’s short list of online security practices.

A very basic precaution that is often overlooked is to make sure the public Wi-Fi connection is actually offered by the merchant or facility where you are located. Someone can easily set up an access point and name it something innocuous to trick people into using it. Make sure that you are connecting to a legitimate Wi-Fi network. Many businesses post the name of their network in easy view of customers, but if you don’t see it anywhere take the time to ask an employee what their network is named before you connect.

Finally, one last option is to use your own data connection instead of free Wi-Fi when doing anything other than viewing public websites. A good practice is to avoid performing particularly sensitive transactions over public Wi-Fi. You can probably wait until you are on your own network to take care of your banking, for example. This obviously has its downsides, including the use of your own data allowance and the possibility of a poor connection to your carrier, but it is without a doubt the most secure choice when accessing your accounts.

Free public Wi-Fi can be a great option as long as you keep the potential risks in mind and take a few simple steps to reduce them. A few moments of effort to implement simple precautions will help you stay safe and secure.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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