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Unwary Consumers at Risk on Public Wi-Fi Networks

Consumers who use public wireless networks often put sensitive personal information at risk. (Pixabay)
Consumers who use public wireless networks often put sensitive personal information at risk. (Pixabay)
August 4, 2016

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Using public wireless networks to check bank accounts, shop and even log into social media accounts could put sensitive personal information in jeopardy, according to new AARP survey.

Frank Abagnale, an ambassador with AARP Fraud Watch Network, has been associated with the FBI for more than four decades - you may remember his story from the movie Catch Me if You Can starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks. He said the risk for identity theft on non-secure Wi-Fi is real.

“If you're in a coffee shop or the airport, it's fine to play a game, it's fine go check the weather, it's fine to look up something up on the internet,” Abagnale said. "But it is not the place make a credit card transaction, answer an e-mail that's requesting your Social Security number or make a bank transaction."

Nearly half of all consumers log on to free public Wi-Fi at least once every few months according to the study, and 33 percent of those users shop with credit cards; 37 percent have conducted banking.

AARP Wyoming joined a national campaign to spread the word about the potential hazards of public Wi-Fi and is encouraging businesses to download a safety tips poster at AARP.org/WatchYourWiFi.

Abagnale says in one common scam, a hacker positions himself between users and the Wi-Fi connection. Instead of talking directly with the hotspot, users send information to the hacker who then impersonates them to send and receive data. Abagnale pointed to a recent incident where a victim tried to wire $175,000 from their banking account to a client.

"The client never received it,” Abagnale said. “[They] found out that it was intercepted, and of course the bank is not liable because you were committing that transaction on public Wi-Fi, which is something you're not supposed to do."

Since most people are honest and don't think in a deceptive way, Abagnale said, many fall prey to scams. But he believes people will protect themselves if they know how hackers prey on victims and get away with it.

"Unfortunately if you make it easy for someone to steal from you, they probably will,” he said. "So you don't want to make it easy. There's a lot of great information out there to protect yourself. Be proactive and you're less likely to be a victim."

Eric Galatas, Public News Service - WY