Tips to secure your info at Wi-Fi hotspots

LOS ANGELES Barnes & Noble, McDonald's, Hampton Inn, and Starbucks all offer free wireless Internet. Customers can't get enough of it.

But is it safe to go online in public places, through a Wi-Fi hotspot? Consumer Reports engineer Dean Gallea says you have to be careful.

"You're actually connecting into a computer network with strangers," said Gallea. "A hacker can get at personal information that you provide, or even trick you into connecting to a fake hotspot."

To illustrate, Gallea parked near a Starbucks with his laptop. Outside, his colleague was logging on. Gallea created a phony Starbucks connection and it came up at the top of the list.

"She chose my fake hotspot instead of the real one, so she'll be seeing a fake web page I set up and I'll be able to see any personal information she types in," said Gallea.

Consumer Reports says before logging on to public Wi-Fi, be sure to confirm the name of the wireless network connection.

In this case, it wasn't Starbucks, but rather ATT Wi-Fi down the list. And before you send any personal information like a credit card number, look for the letters "https" in the address bar, not simply "http." The "s" means the data leaving your computer is sent securely. A padlock is another sign of a secure connection.

"But your best protection when you're connected to a public hotspot is just not to send any personal information at all," said Gallea.

Consumer Reports says there's another important step to take to keep your information secure at public hotspots. You should disable your laptop's file and printer sharing features. This will help prevent people on the wireless network from gaining access to your personal documents. Check your computer's help menu to find out how to do this.

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