AARP Report: Using Public Wireless Network Can Be Costly

Published in Woonsocket Call on August 2, 2015

This week Rhode Islanders learned about a secret NSA map obtained exclusively by NBC News detailing China’s cyber attack on all sectors of the U.S economy, including major firms like Google and Lockheed Martin, as well as the U.S. government and military.

But, they also learned that the stealing of personal and financial information isn’t just taking place nationally at federal agencies and Fortune 500 companies but throughout the state, too.  Internet users who put convenience ahead of protecting financial information stored on their laptops and mobile devices are becoming more susceptible to hackers, too, says a newly released 21 page AARP report.

Giving Hackers Easy Access to Your Personal Info

A new survey of internet users, ages 18 and over, released on July 29, 2015, shows that the freedom and convenience of public wireless networks may come at a cost. Nearly half failed a quiz about online and wireless safety, while tens-of-thousands admit to engaging in activity that could put them squarely in the sights of hackers looking to steal their personal information.

An AARP Fraud Watch Network report, “Convenience versus Security,” shows that among adults who access the Internet, a quarter (25%) use free public Wi-Fi once per week or more. “A free Wi-Fi network at an airport, hotel or coffee shop is convenient,” said Kathleen Connell, State Director of AARP Rhode Island. “But without a secure network, Americans risk over sharing, leaving themselves vulnerable to attacks by con artists and hackers.”

In response to these cyber threats recognizing the need for greater awareness of the risks of internet scams, the Washington, DC-based AARP is launching the “Watch Your Wi-Fi” campaign to educate Americans about the risks of free public Wi-Fi and how they can protect themselves.

Researchers identified a high incidence of risky online behaviors that might lead to financial theft and fraud.  According to the findings, among those who say they use free public Wi-Fi, more than a quarter of respondents (27%) say they have banked online via public Wi-Fi in the last three months.  Similarly, 27% of those who use free public Wi-Fi have purchased a product or service over public Wi-Fi using a credit card.

Additionally, the findings noted that 26% of the respondents who use smartphones do not use a pass code on their phones.  Sixty one percent do not have online access to all of their bank accounts.  Finally, among those who have set up access to all or some of their online banking accounts, almost half (45%) say they have not changed their online banking passwords in the past 90 days. Experts say that online bank account passwords should be changed every 90 days.

Ignorance Is Not Bliss

The researchers found that nearly half of survey respondents (45%) failed a quiz about online and wireless safety.  The findings also indicated that approximately 40% of respondents were not aware that it is not okay to use the same password on more than one site even if it contains a complex mix of letters, numbers and symbols.  Even if you are not using the Internet, if you’re in a location with a public Wi-Fi network, you should disable your wireless connection, say the researchers, adding that it is NOT safe to access websites with sensitive information, such as banking or credit cards, while using a public Wi-Fi network, even if the website is secured by https.

More than 8 in 10 (84%) people surveyed did not know that the most up-to-date security for a home Wi-Fi network is NOT WEP — Wired Equivalent Privacy.  Experts advise using at least WPA2 wireless encryption for better protection.

“The Fraud Watch Network’s “Watch Your Wi-Fi” campaign is giving Rhode Islanders the information they need to stay connected without sacrificing their personal security,” Connell added.

Protecting Yourself on Public Wi-Fi

A newly launched FWN cyber scam website features “Four Things Never to Do on Public Wi-Fi”   You can protect your financial data by following these website pointers.  First, “Don’t fall for a fake.”  Scam artists often set up unsecure networks with names similar to a legitimate business, coffee shop, hotel or other free Wi-Fi network.  Always “Mind your business.”  To reduce indentity theft and fraud, do not access your email, online bank or credit card accounts using public Wi-Fi.  Always “Watch your settings” too.  Keep your mobile device from automatically connecting to nearby Wi-Fi.  Finally, “Stick to your cell:” Don’t surf the internet by using an unknown public network if the website requires sensitive information – like online shopping.  Your cell phone network is safer to use. .

“The survey by AARP on Americans’ knowledge of how to protect themselves online is alarming.  With more people online than ever before, the public needs to be more aware of the dangers that lurk in cyberspace and take the necessary measures to protect to protect themselves from being a victim of cyber crimes and scams,” said Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin, whose Consumer Protection Unit is often the first place consumers call when they have been victimized online.

Attorney General Kilmartin offers these pointers on how to protect yourself while cruising cyberspace:  When creating a password for an online account, the key to remember is to make it “long and strong,” with a minimum of eight characters and a mix of upper and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols.  Always use dual verification and ask for protection beyond passwords based on information only you would know, like your first elementary school or the name of your first pet. Many account providers now offer additional ways for you verify who you are before you conduct business on that site.  Finally, use different passwords for different devices and different accounts.

According to Kilmartin, it may be easier to remember one simple password for all your accounts, but you make it easier for hackers to figure out your password and gain access to all your online accounts.  “I write down my passwords in a notebook which is kept in a safe place, separate from my electronic devices. This may seem like a cumbersome step, but trust me, it’s much easier than trying to reclaim your identity and clean up your credit if someone steals your identity,” he says.

Pawtucket Police Chief Paul King sees increase in identity theft and fraud in the City of Pawtucket.  It’s a national trend, he notes.

“In many incidences these crimes are perpetrated far beyond the borders of the United States,” says King, noting that Detective Hans Cute is assigned to the cyber and financial crimes beat.  Detective Cute has received specialized training and works very closely with the US Secret Service, US Postal Service, and other state and federal agencies when this type of crime occurs, he says.

Pawtucket residents can report a cyber and identity theft crime to Detective Cute at (401) 727-9100, Ext. 758.  For Woonsocket residents, call the Woonsocket Police Department at (401) 766-1212.

If you would like to schedule the Attorney General’s Office to visit your organization for a consumer protection presentation, please visit www.riag.ri.gov or call 401-274-4400 and ask for the Consumer Protection Unit.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

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