Travelling Abroad? Beware of Hackers and Risky Wifi

If you are going to places that are are unsure of, you normally take precautions like locking your valuables in a safe or wearing clothes that make it harder for pickpocketers.  Add one more precaution – beware of digital hackers and risky Wifi.  In many developing countries, tourists are ripe for the diigital picking.   Like many, you may already be doing your banking or shopping online using your smartphone.  Hackers will try to steal from you by gaining access to your password or PIN numbers.  Your connection to wifi overseas is your weakest link. 

Here are some ways you can safeguard your smartphone from wifi dangers and hackers:

Information transmitted over open wifi networks like Starbucks, while free and easy to use, is usually not secure.   Even wifi provided by hotels may also be suspect because they often prioritise convenience versus security.  There are programs or hardware that hackers can use to eavesdrop on your transmissions and steal valuable pieces of data like credit card numbers, PIN or passwords.  In more sophisticated hacking, they can use unsecured wifi to gain access to your smartphone by embedding malware or virus – and you may not even know about it.  

  • For sensitive use like shopping or banking, do not use wifi from hotels or public area to prevent sniffing.  Use WiFi from your own personal hotspot that is connected directly to the telco via a SIM card or internet access that comes with your telco’s connection to your smartphone.   If you are watching movies or surfing some news sites, then there is less risk using hotel or public WiFi.
  • If you are using an older Android smartphone, leave it at home.  Hacking normally exploits earlier versions of Android that are several generations behind the current.   As a rule of thumb, you should upgrade your smartphone regularly so that you are up-to-date with the security features found in the latest Android version.  
  • If you want to be extra careful, turn off your “real” smartphone and use only a “burner” smartphone when you travel to risky destinations.  A burner smartphone is a phone that you designate for use that does not contain personal information – and you can buy a good one for under $200.  (I know many of you cannot part with your regular or “real” smartphone!)
  • For those who are more tech savvy, using a high quality subscription VPN can reduce hacking risks significantly because all data in-and-out of your smartphone is encrypted and is of no use to the sniffer, even if intercepted.   Here is a review of some of the top VPNs you can subscribe to – but make sure they have a smartphone app edition and is easy to use.
  • Try not to download local apps when you travel because it may come with extras like malware and virus.  If you have to, make sure you have a good antivirus or anti-malware installed and have it to run regular scans of your smartphone.  When you no longer need the foreign app, make sure you remove it from your smartphone completely.  Also pay particular attention when the app asks for permission to access various functions in your smartphone.  Apps that require too many permissions that appear unnecessary should be a red flag. 

If this sounds like major paranoia, trust me it is not.  Given the amount of important information and use of our personal smartphone, it may be easier to steal from you digitally than to try an lift your wallet!  So please do not try to save a few bucks by logging into free wifi overseas.

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