June 26, 2012 at 1:06 PM ET
Vacation should be all about sun, sand and drinks with umbrellas. But recently, cybercriminals are making it about something else — something that might send you dashing to those umbrella drinks for a whole other reason. Cybercriminals are now using pop-up alerts delivered over hotel Wi-Fi to infect computers with malware, according to a recent FBI report.
Since that — or any other computer issue like theft or viruses — is pretty much the last thing any of us wants to deal with on our much-needed summer vacations, I decided to chat with Stephen Cobb, a security expert with anti-malware company ESET, about how to protect your computer while traveling. Here are his top five tips.
1. Don’t update software while on hotel Wi-Fi
Before you go on the road, make sure your operating system and software are updated. Once you get to the hotel, don’t update your software if you are asked to do so by the hotel’s Wi-Fi. That’s because this “update” could allow cybercriminals to install malware that monitors everything you do on your computer—including intercept passwords to email and financial institutions, host criminal web sites and send spam for fake pharmaceuticals and porn. Some malware can even turn on your webcam and record whatever is going on in the room.
2. Make sure your computer has antivirus software installed on it
While this isn’t a guarantee that you won’t get a virus while on vacation, it goes a long way towards protecting your computer. It’s a good idea to make sure your antivirus software is up to date and active before you leave home.
3. Backup your data before you leave home
Just in case something does happen to your computer while on vacation, you’ll want to backup the data on your computer to a hard drive or the cloud before you leave home. This way, you won’t lose everything should your computer get stolen or get infected with a virus.
4. Make sure the network is encrypted with WPA2
Ideally, you’ll want to use hotel Wi-Fi connections only if they’re encrypted with WPA2. How can you tell this? Usually, when connecting to any encrypted network, you have to enter the password for it in your wireless network settings, in which case your software may identify if a network is encrypted by WEP, WPA or WPA2 encryption. If in doubt, ask the front desk or contact technical support for the connection. Only use WEP if you desperately need the Internet and have no other option. You may also want to confirm with the hotel before you book that it uses a reputable Internet service provider — some of the more well-known ones include AT&T and iBahn. However, many times the hotel’s Wi-Fi connection will be made to look like the hotel brand so you will not know who it is from. Also, an attacker may create rogue wireless networks and web sites which mimic the legitimate ones. So, if in doubt, ask the front desk or contact technical support for the connection. If you’re accessing your company’s network, do it through VPN (virtual private network) if possible. Ask your IT department how to do this.
5. Keep your computer locked up
This may seem obvious, but I’ve had a few friends get their computers stolen while on vacation. If the hotel room has a safe, keep your computer in it. If you plan on carrying your computer with you in the car, put it in the trunk before you head out, not while you’re in the parking lot of a restaurant or bar because then criminals can see that you have this expensive equipment in there.
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