Are Your Devices Auto-Connecting to Malicious WiFi Hotspots?

I don't mean to scare you, but there's a setting on your phone and/or tablet you should probably check -- and possibly change -- right now.

This is particularly important for travelers passing through airports, coffee shops, restaurants, etc., but really, anyone who leaves their house should pay attention, too.

See, there's a good chance your phone/tablet is set up to automatically connect to "familiar" WiFi signals (wireless hotspots or SSIDs) when they're in range.

The problem is, hackers have set up tons of fake WiFi signals that look exactly like the real ones, and your devices may be automatically connecting to them, too...and providing the bad guys with the keys to your castle.

When you're on the road, you probably know to steer clear of wireless hotspots with scammy-sounding names like "Free Wi-Fi" and "Totally Free Internet."

But there are also legitimate-looking signals that can do real damage, too. To you and your device, these so-called "Evil Twin" signals look exactly like the real ones from Comcast/Xfinity, AT&T, etc., and they are scarily easy for hackers to set up.

Articles I've read say someone (armed with little more than a laptop) can set up a malicious WiFi hotspot and name it "Xfinity" or "attwifi" like you find at airports, coffee shops, restaurants and other places.

And again, if your device is set to "auto detect" and/or "auto connect" to hotspots with these names, boom, you've just flung open your door to be hacked.

According to an article on TheConsumerist.com...

"The AT&T example is of particular concern because A) the default setting on AT&T smartphones to automatically connect to these networks, and B) the company's legitimate WiFi network is so widespread in certain markets that some people don't blink when their devices connect to one."

So, what should you do?

First, turn off the "auto detect" and/or "auto connect" WiFi settings on your devices.

Second, try to rely on your own (or purchased) WiFi signal whenever possible. You certainly have plenty of options...

1. My favorite is to simply use my smartphone as a "hotspot." I use my Android phone like this all the time and it works on iPhones, too.

With just a few menu taps, you expose your phone's signal so your other devices can connect to it. Just make sure to password-protect your signal or others could connect to it, too. Streaming audio/video can eat up your data allowance fast, so I stick to basic stuff like Web browsing and email.

2. Many tablets can be purchased with their own, "built in" WiFi signal (for iPads, this is the "cellular" upgrade).

3. Get a subscription or day pass to services such as Boingo Wireless (boingo.com).

4. All the major wireless carriers (and some upstarts such as Karma and FreedomPop) sell "mobile hotspots." About the size of a deck of cards, they're designed to be taken on the road and they provide secure WiFi access for multiple devices.

I'm sure there are other options -- what works best for you?

How do you like to "connect to the Internet" when you're traveling? Please share your thoughts or read what others are saying below.

Craig Better is one of the founding editors of Golf Vacation Insider. In addition to traveling to 15 foreign countries, he has twice traveled across America to play golf courses in all 50 United States. Prior to joining Golf Vacation Insider, Craig was a freelance writer who contributed to GOLF Magazine, Travel + Leisure Golf, Maxim Magazine, USAToday.com, and co-authored Zagat Survey’s book, America’s Top Golf Courses.
4 Comments
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Commented on

In terms of Ed's comments for the non-technical out there, what VPN does is encrypt the WiFi traffic while in the air, so that it makes it much hard for a 'snooped' signal to be actually read. This happens to all traffic that travels through the VPN. Somewhat similar in technology to what happens to your credit card info when sent over the internet.

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Commented on

One of the issues faced even if it is genuine free WiFi (such as Starbucks) is that those signals can "snooped". This isn't a technical forum but I suggest that your readers investigate "Virtual Private Network" or VPN. Wikipedia has a good explanation. There are services that offer VPN connections by the day, month, etc. Some home routers even provide a VPN service.

Again, this is not the proper forum but "Open VPN" offers many advantages and should be considered if you are concerned about security.

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Commented on

VERY helpful article, thank you. I turned my "Ask to join networks" on my iPhone off immediately...

Commented on

Good tip, as it will also help preserve battery as well.

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Are Your Devices Auto-Connecting to Malicious WiFi Hotspots?