(StatePoint) Americans love going online. In fact, a recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project and the Wi-Fi Alliance found that half of all adults go online with a laptop using a Wi-Fi connection while 40 percent use the Internet on mobile phones.
Going online in public is convenient. Public Wi-Fi networks let us check e-mail, update social media profiles, and shop almost anywhere. But should we? How safe is the personal information we send over public networks?
"Most people don't realize that Wi-Fi signals are just radio waves, and anyone can 'listen' to what you're sending just as easily as tuning a radio to the right station," says Kent Lawson, Founder and CEO of Private Communications Corporation, a new online security technology company.
That's because the majority of Wi-Fi hotspots in airports, planes, coffee houses and other public places aren't encrypted. That makes them havens for data thieves who've walked off with millions of Wi-Fi users' credit card and Social Security numbers.
There are some steps you can take to keep your information safe, says Lawson.
If you're using public computers, such as those at the library, don't save anything on them. Make sure to close the browser and clear the cache when you're done. In addition, limit your activities, because someone might have installed "key stroke tracking" software, which can watch everything you do, and capture your log-in information.
If you're using your own computer with public Wi-Fi access, be even more careful. For example, be cautious about what you put in email messages. Credit card and social security numbers and home addresses should be avoided. Never bank or shop, unless the site is secure -- the web addresses should start with "https" not "http." And turn off file sharing to prevent someone from gaining access to your hard drive.
Or, for better peace of mind, you can install software that encrypts all data going into and out of your computer, such as PCC's Private WiFi. This makes you invisible to hackers on any public network, anywhere in the world. While antivirus protects you from viruses and firewalls prevents unauthorized access to your information while you communicate, Private WiFi encrypts all the information you send. All three work in tandem to keep you safe.
If you use your mobile phone to access the Internet, make sure you password protect it and install security software. You can also enroll in a back-up/wiping program, which backs-up your information and also can delete it if your phone is lost or stolen. These services are available from your phone's manufacturer or your wireless provider.