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The dangers of free WiFi: Avoiding online scams at Rio Olympics

The Rio Olympics, taking place from August 5th to 21st, will draw more than 10,000 athletes from around the world, along with hundreds of thousands of fans and spectators.

While Rio is preparing, it is important that everyone who travels to see the Olympics prepares to stay safe. One of the most important things for travellers who go to crowded public events is not only protecting their wallets and other belongings from pickpockets, but also protecting their online privacy, especially when using public WiFi -- whether at a stadium, on the street, at a hotel, a restaurant, or the airport.

The dangers of free public WiFi

Free wireless networks, enjoyed by almost every Olympics participant or spectator, provide us with easy access to the Internet service, but are not able to offer security in most cases, since public WiFi can be hacked into very easily.

For example, hackers are now using sophisticated technology, such as sniffers, a software designed to intercept and decode data when it is transmitted over a network. Wireless sniffers are specifically created for capturing data on wireless networks. A full stadium of people who are using free WiFi is a goldmine of stolen identities for a hacker.

The most common threat, however, is a hacker positioning himself as a hotspot. When that happens, a WiFi user will be sending their information to a hacker, and that could include credit card information, all emails, and any other sensitive information they might be transmitting. This is extremely easy for a hacker to do, as WiFi spots rarely require authentication to establish a connection.

The best and most effective way for any traveler to protect their data is to use a VPN (Virtual Private Network). A VPN service encrypts all the traffic flow between the Internet and a device, thus hiding a user’s IP address.

How to choose a VPN

Choose a VPN that is easy to use. Also, beware of free VPN service providers. Free VPN providers do not necessarily provide highest quality security measures. A VPN service needs to pay for the server maintenance, staffing, and operational costs, and therefore in itself cannot be free. ‘Free' VPNs typically rely on third party advertisers to cover the costs. Often they are free proxy services, marketed as a VPN service, when in fact proxies are not encrypted (they just change your IP address, but do not hide or encrypt it).

Besides protecting your safety and security when you are traveling, a VPN can also help you access geo-blocked sites. For example, social media sites such as Whatsapp occasionally get blocked in Brazil. Using a VPN would allow you to bypass these blocks by setting your connection to another country and appearing to be in the U.S., for example. In addition, you can stream as if you were in USA or UK: with a VPN, you can access most streaming services just as if you were in the U.S. -- and that includes Netflix, Spotify, Pandora, Hulu, YouTube with local restrictions and so on.

VPNs are quickly gaining popularity in the world of tightening online security, and soon using a VPN will be as common as going online. Besides using a VPN, travellers should use antivirus and anti-spyware and automatically update their software.

Jodi Myers at NordVPN