By Tyler Haskell

As of last year, there were about 270 million smartphone users in the America. As society becomes increasingly more connected and reliant on their mobile devices, network operators, retailers, restaurants, and other establishments have started more aggressively rolling out WiFi networks to support customers, while also promoting their brands. Many hotels have offered free in-room WiFi for years, and coffee houses has become a popular hangout for people looking for a place to get online for a while. It’s a great way for people to stay connected, especially since WiFi tends to be less of a battery drain than cellular data, and it doesn’t eat into mobile data plans.

Nearly anywhere you go today, you are likely to find a free public WiFi network through which you can access email, videos, music, or other resources. But, it doesn’t come without risk. Hackers are constantly looking to exploit the number of unsecure WiFi networks out there to intercept data and put users’ personal and financial information at risk, potentially resulting in financial loss and identity theft.

Here are a few tips to protect yourself if you have to connect to a WiFi network.

Security – Never use open WiFi networks (those that don’t require passwords).

Encrypted sites – Look for the https:// at the beginning of the site’s address. Don’t send information to any sites that are not encrypted, and be aware that some sites only encrypt their home or sign-in page, and not the whole site. If any portion of the site is unsecure, your information could be at risk.

Log-ins – Only log into accounts that are completely secure. If you find yourself on an unencrypted page after logging in, you should log out immediately. Also, make sure you log out of sites when you’ve finished using them.

Passwords – This has been heavily promoted in recent years, with the number of high-profile breaches, but make sure you don’t use the same password across multiple sites. If that password is compromised, a hacker could instantly gain access to all of the sites you’ve used with that password. You should also consider a password manager, which helps secure your passwords to your various accounts.

Fraud messages – Some browsers include alerts when accessing a potentially fraudulent site. Pay attention to those warnings.

Anti-virus software – One of the most important things you can do is to keep your security software up-to-date. This will not only provide a number of protective measures, but will update with the latest threat information regularly to keep your devices, accounts, and personal data safe.

Auto-connect – To avoid inadvertently connecting to unsafe networks, turn off any auto-connect features on your devices. That way, any time you want to access a WiFi network, you will be able to do it manually and only select secure networks.

VPN – If you can, consider connecting through a VPN (Virtual Private Network) if you are using WiFi. Most public access points aren’t using the latest encryption technology. A VPN will help protect your information even if it is intercepted.

Financial transactions – Avoid making any financial transactions or accessing bank accounts on public WiFi networks.

Bluetooth – Turn off your Bluetooth connectivity when you’re not using it. It, too, can be hacked to connect to your device by hackers in close range.

While there’s a lot you can do as a user to protect yourself, financial institutions and other vendors should be aware of the likelihood that user information may be stolen. They, too, are prepared to help with additional authentication measures and fraud detection. If you have any questions or are concerned that your information may have been compromised, don’t hesitate to reach out to your bank for assistance. The faster you can address potential breaches, the more likely you are to be able to avoid fraudulent transactions and avoid all the headaches that come with them.