Beware of the FREE airport Wi-Fi scam

Question

I’m on the road a lot and am constantly in search of a wireless Internet connection that I can use. Some of them say “Free Wi-Fi” but I can’t seem to get connected. I am fairly new to wireless on the road, so what am I doing wrong?

- Patricia

Answer

This question was answered on January 31, 2007. Much of the information contained herein may have changed since posting.

Most users of wireless networking technologies can often get confused about how and when this technology is supposed to work.

At home, it works because it is specifically setup to connect to a “preferred” network, but when you are on the road, you are essentially “knocking on doors” electronically to see who will let you in.

Airports, hotels, coffee shops and restaurants are common gathering points for “road warriors” to get online wirelessly, but there are a number of reasons why you won’t be able to connect.

The most common is that you may need an account with a specific provider in order to connect The best example is that relationship Starbucks has with T-Mobile, where only T-Mobile customers can connect to the wireless network.

Hotels that offer wireless either provide it at no charge or bill your room on a daily or weekly basis In either situation, you must connect to a page that reviews the “user agreement” and other legal disclaimers before you can connect.

A more common scenario is that a number of other users that are in the same area as you are appearing as “available connections” Until recently, this was no big deal, other than the time wasted trying to get to the Internet through another persons computer because it appeared on your “Wireless Network Connection” list.

But the “bad guys” have figured out that they can trick folks into thinking they are connecting to a “free” connection by configuring their machine to allow others to access the Internet through their computer.

The reason they do this is so they can exploit the unsuspecting user that unknowingly connected directly to the hacker’s computer Depending upon how you have your computer setup, everything you type once you connect to this “scam” connection can be captured by the bad guys.

The most likely places that you will come across these staged connections is at airports, but this scam can be perpetrated anywhere folks are looking for a free connection.

The way the scam works is that a hacker will go to the airport with a laptop and sit and wait for travelers that are looking for an Internet connection They broadcast their computer as a “Free Internet” connection so that it shows up on the unsuspecting traveler’s computer, who then clicks on the connection to fall prey to the scam.

There is an easy way to identify these scam connections if you know what to look for, however Instead of appearing as a “wireless network” (or infrastructure) they appear as a “computer-to-computer” or ad-hoc connection.

By default, Windows XP recognizes any available network, but I highly recommend that you change it to recognize “Access Points or infrastructure networks only” so you don’t get fooled by the bad guys.

To do this, click on your wireless icon (bottom right corner next to the clock), then on the “View Wireless Networks” button and then on “Change advanced settings” Click on the Wireless Networks tab at the top and then on the “Advanced” button towards the bottom

Select the “Access point…only” option and make sure that the “Automatically connect to non-preferred networks” option is turned off so this scam will no longer appear on your screen when you travel!

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Author

Posted by Ken of Data Doctors on January 31, 2007