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From airport WiFi to ‘juice jacking’: 7 ways to protect your data when traveling

Whether your online data is locked down may be the last thing on your mind as you rush through the airport checking departure times and work emails.

Hackers have advanced tactics to prey on victims online. Here are ways to protect yourself. (Dreamstime/TNS)
Hackers have advanced tactics to prey on victims online. Here are ways to protect yourself. (Dreamstime/TNS)Read moreDreamstime / MCT

Whether your online data is locked down may be the last thing on your mind as you rush through the airport checking departure times and work emails.

Add in coronavirus worries and “we can expect that travelers are highly distracted and will let their guard down,” Daryl Crockett, CEO of ValidDatum, a data management and cybersecurity company, said.

Hackers have advanced tactics to prey on victims online, and a fraudulent airport WiFi connection is only one of the ways in which they trap travelers. Hank Schless, senior manager of security solutions at the cybersecurity company Lookout, points out that we may have been taught to install protections like anti-virus software on our computers, but our personal devices remain vulnerable - and a preferred entry point for cybercriminals.

“They leverage the trust we have in these devices against us and know that they’re a treasure trove of personal and corporate data,” Schless said.

Here are seven ways travelers can protect themselves against hackers.

Scrutinize public WiFi options before connecting

The public WiFi we often rely on away from home can be filled with cybersecurity land mines. Places with lingering travelers - like airports, train stations and coffee shops - can be prime targets.

“While many airports offer free WiFi connectivity, you should make sure you’re joining the real, official network from the airport and not a lookalike network that is set up to lure travelers into giving up their usernames and passwords,” Jeff Sakasegawa, trust and safety architect at the fraud protection company Sift, said.

Schless said attackers have been known to set up fake networks with convincing names like "Starbucks_Guest_WiFi" or "Free_PennStation_Internet," where they can hijack your device. This method can route all of the victim's traffic through their system, which could expose their sensitive work data or personal information, such as log-in credentials.

Hanson said travelers should treat their public WiFi use "like someone is looking over your shoulder" and avoid logging into sensitive accounts such as your bank, medical provider or even social media.

Use your own charger

Another significant risk for travelers is using a charger that isn't yours, Schless said. He warns against ever accepting a stranger's offer to borrow their charging cord.

"Attackers can exploit USB cords and load malicious software into them that loads itself onto your device the second you plug it in," he said.

In 2019, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office warned travelers of the USB charging scam also known as “juice jacking.” They discouraged travelers from using charging stations that could expose devices to malware attacks that can lock devices then export sensitive information such as passwords and bank account numbers.

Turn off auto-connect functions

If your personal devices are programmed to auto-connect to WiFi networks, Hanson recommended turning that off while traveling.

Additionally, she said, travelers should turn off their WiFi and Bluetooth when not in use for further protection.

An added bonus: You’ll save precious battery power.

Turn on account alerts before travel

To stay up to date on your accounts while traveling, Crockett told travelers to turn on alerts for their credit card and banking apps. Doing so will let the company alert you if there is unusual spending or log-ins.

Crockett also advised travelers to know how to lock their debit or credit cards before hitting the road. If you lose or misplace them during the trip, you can lock them to prevent fraudulent use.

Add two-factor authentication or biometric log-ins

Rather than relying on just a password to unlock accounts, Hanson suggests adding two-factor authentication - requiring both a password and a unique code. Even if a hacker had your password, they would need to physically have one of your personal devices to get the code for the second step.

Even better: Hanson suggests enabling biometrics - i.e., a fingerprint or face ID - to open your devices or apps.

Consider a VPN

Crockett recommended that travelers get a Virtual Private Network (VPN) that will encrypt most of the data sent and received over phone or laptop. She suggested going to McAfee to find a package that offers VPN protection for multiple devices. Many workplaces also offer VPNs on company devices.

Hanson warned against using a free VPN. "If it's free, you might be the product," she said.

Another option is downloading a security app for your phone to prevent mobile phishing attacks.

Be wary of subscription renewal emails

The most common way for attackers to steal login credentials these days is through socially engineered phishing campaigns, Schless said. By posing as an airline, credit card company or online retailer, there is a lower chance that a scam will be detected or be blocked by automated protections.

"On mobile devices, these campaigns can be executed across SMS, email, social media platforms, third-party chatting apps, gaming and even dating apps," Schless said.

For example, Crane Hassold, director of threat intelligence at Abnormal Security, a cloud email security platform, said he has recently noticed cyberattacks targeting travelers by impersonating the Transportation Security Administration via email.

Here's how it works: A scammer will send out an email telling the recipient that their TSA PreCheck is due for renewal. The renewal email link leads to a fake but legitimate-looking site where hackers can accept a payment and steal a victim's personal information.

While TSA does send renewal reminder emails, travelers should go directly through the TSA website for information on their existing accounts.