Free WiFi -- Is it safe to surf?

By Gray Hall - bio | email

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) – Free always sounds good, but when it comes to free WiFi, police say surf with caution. They warn, crooks are always looking to take advantage of unsuspecting computer users. We have some tips on how to make your WiFi experience a bit safer.

A hot latte and a day surfing the web sounds like the perfect day but using free WiFi can come with a price -- your personal information could end up in the wrong hands.

"Once you are on that network, a number of things can happen to you, it is like welcoming someone into your home," said Computer expert Adam Bell.

He says when using free WiFi, surf with caution.

"If the name of their wireless network is please use this, also be weary because why would someone want to give away free Internet. Normally the business or establishment has a wireless network in that name, so you want to stick to that," said Bell.

Special Agent Salvatore Girgente with the State Police teaches people how to surf safely.

"Like driving a car, it might be safer to drive on a private empty road than it would be on a major highway, you take the same risks when you use the Internet," he said.

Within a couple of minutes, and a few clicks Girgente showed us how easy it was for crooks to get your information. It only took seconds to get our user-name and password for a website we used for the demonstration.

Security experts say try sticking with safe sites that have https in the address bar and only logon to WiFi networks with legitimate business names -- and even then, double check to make sure it's the real deal.

"If you are going to use it, I would suggest you not do anything you don't want to see published in the paper tomorrow," said Girgente.

Free public WiFi is not the only issue, you also need to make sure your home WiFi is secure. The goal for cooks here is not to steal your personal information -- but to use your Internet without being traced.

"The problem we have run into is where there are individuals that have been found parked outside of someone residence or apartment complex, they have a laptop and they are actually going to sites you shouldn't be going to. They are searching for child pornography or something else," Girgente said.

A quick ride with the Senior Special Agent and we discovered dozens of homes with wireless networks that were not secure, an open invitation for crooks.

"What people don't understand is because they have WiFi access in their home it is not restricted by those walls. It will go out 300-500 feet based on their router," he said.

Girgente says make sure your router is locked.

"If there is not a lock next to it, that is open and I can log onto that very easily and do anything on the Internet I want to do," Girgente added.

Many times the crooks are one step ahead of police. Girgente says while officers are working to protect you, you also have to lookout for yourself when online. Onguard online and Wireless help will give you some helpful tips on how to stay safe when using WiFi.

Copyright 2010 WWBT NBC12. All rights reserved.