Watch Out for “Free” Wi-Fi Options

Photo Credit: Pixabay

Rebecca Harpster
Golden Gate Better Business Bureau

A few weeks ago, I was flying home to San Diego from Oakland. While waiting at my gate, I noticed a free Wi-Fi option next to the paid option that I had used on previous trips. As someone who loves a good deal, I paused and considered clicking on the unfamiliar free Wi-Fi – before deciding the risk wasn’t worth it.

If you are traveling this summer and hoping to take advantage of free Wi-Fi hotspots, make sure to be careful before connecting your laptop, tablet, or smartphone. Scammers use fake or unsecured Wi-Fi hotspots to steal personal and financial information, and they can even use it to gain access to your device.

It works like this: you’re at a coffee shop, airport, hotel lobby, or other public place, and you want to connect to Wi-Fi. You search for connections and find one nearby. It may be labeled something generic like “Free Public Wi-Fi” or include the name of the establishment. It may look harmless, but be careful when connecting. You might be taking a risk!

Some fake Wi-Fi hotspots prompt you to pay a small fee in order to use the connection. After a user clicks on the Wi-Fi, they’re prompted to enter credit card information. Of course, this info is shared with the scammer and then they can use your card too!

In another version, a hacker is able to insert themselves between your computer and a Wi-Fi connection. This happens when the Wi-Fi is unsecured. Once you’re connected, everything you do online – such as make a purchase or log into an account – is now transmitted through the scammer’s computer. They can now access any passwords, credit card information, and other data you’ve entered online. This is why BBB warns that you should never online bank or enter personal or financial information while on public Wi-Fi – better safe than sorry!

Here are some suggestions that’ll help you safely use public Wi-Fi connections:

  • Be sure you are using the correct Wi-Fi connection. If you are in a place that offers free Wi-Fi, verify the name of the connection before joining. Scammers often set up fake, lookalike hotspots next to real ones.
  • Be careful how you use public Wi-Fi. When using a hotspot to log into an account or make a purchase, be sure the site is fully encrypted. Look for the “https” in the URL, where the “s” stands for “secure”.
  • Consider using a VPN. If you regularly access public Wi-Fi, consider using a virtual private network (VPN). VPNs encrypt traffic between your computer and the Internet, even on unsecured networks. Research VPN providers online, especially at
  • Always use antivirus software and a firewall. Protect your computer (and some cell phones) by using antivirus software and a firewall from a trustworthy company.
  • Use good password sense. Protect yourself from hacking by using strong passwords and creating a different password for each account. Learn tips for password safety at

To learn more about scams, check out BBB’s scam tips at To report a scam and see scams happening across North America, go to BBB Scam Tracker at

You can reach your BBB at or (510) 844-2000, or by visiting