Millions exposed to ‘holiday hacking’ as cybercriminals exploit public WiFi

When travelling for business or going on holiday, everyone is used to taking certain traditional security measures. You might buy a padlock for your suitcases to help deter any rogue airport workers, and use travellers cheques instead of money - just in case you are robbed, or lose your wallet.

While these are, of course, all worthy considerations, going on vacation nowadays poses some common risks that you need to prepare for. Firstly, cybercriminals can get access to poorly setup WiFi networks - sometimes because of vulnerabilities in commercial routers. For this reason, official airport, coffee shop, restaurant or hotel WiFi networks can put you at risk. Hackers can monitor your activity, see what sites you’re visiting and in some cases, track the keys you are using to snatch passwords to bank accounts and other sites you need to log in to.

How do they do it?

Cybercriminals can set up a fake or duplicate network relatively easily if they know what they’re doing. They then made their network look like the official WiFi for the area. With either of those possibilities, hackers can use the untrusted network to spy on everything you do - whether it is your Facebook, Twitter, or email account password. It could even be something more dangerous, such as your bank login, PayPal credentials, or credit card details. Using these unprotected networks can be a severe risk.

Luckily, there are a number of things that you can do to stop your journey from turning into a nightmare.

How to avoid being ‘holiday hacked’

If at all possible, it is better to use your smartphone’s Internet connection instead of a local, untrusted network. In most places around the world, you can buy a prepaid sim, which can be topped up at local shops. By using that pay-as-you-go data you avoid the risk of roaming charges, but more importantly, you rid yourself of the need to attach to unknown WiFi networks.

Another brilliant option is a Virtual Private Network. A VPN service strongly encrypts all of your data as it passes from you to the VPN provider. That means that no matter what you do when attached to a WiFi network, nobody can snoop on you. The outcome is that you can quite happily use a hotel, airport, or even a cybercriminal's hotspot (even to shop with your credit card). Even if a cybercriminal does compromise your WiFi connection, they will see only digital garbage, since all your data is encrypted.

As with all good things in life, a reliable and trustworthy VPN service needs to be paid for. The result, however, is strong security and peace of mind. But be sure to compare the options as some VPNs are better than others – depending on where you are in the world, and what device you plan to use.

Keep your things under digital lock and key

With connectivity accounted for, there are some other digital precautions you need to take while travelling. When you aren’t using your Laptop, tablet or smartphone, please be sure to leave your devices locked. Smartphones are insanely easy to lose, and your expensive tech can be a real temptation to criminals as you travel.

Setting up your devices to lock up quickly might not be what you are accustomed to around the house, but is vital when abroad. So if you are travelling with your children, be sure to make all family members choose short auto-lock times of just a few minutes.

On top of that, if available, use fingerprint scanners or longer passwords for unlocking. An eight digit password will keep your device’s contents far safer than a four number PIN if it does get stolen or lost. So while travelling, do make use of your smartphone’s most complex security features. You can always weaken that security again once you return home, if it gets on your nerves.

Another good option is to set up your devices’ locator app. Android phones usually come pre-installed with the Device Manger app from Google, and iOS users have Find My iPhone. These apps allow way locate you device, and can help you get you recover it if lost or stolen

While losing a device can be heart breaking, holiday insurance should cover those costs. Having your data stolen, however, can be a disaster! I therefore strongly recommend using encryption on your device. Full disk encryption ensures that your data will remain safe, whatever happens.

All new iPhones are now sold with encryption turned on by default, and on Android devices it can be turned on in the Settings (under security). Windows and Macs ship with full-disk encryption (BitLocker and FileVault respectively) available, but I prefer to use open source options such as VeraCrypt.

Another thing that people often forget to consider is backing up to the cloud. It is possible that you could get through an entire vacation without losing your phone, only to have it go missing on the flight home!

As mentioned before, the loss of the device isn’t too much of a worry, because of holiday insurance. Your holiday snaps, however, are a treasure trove of memories that, if lost, you will never get back and are gone forever. For this reason, you should backup your holiday photos to the cloud as you go along.

Social media can be a location trigger for criminals

Finally, I will leave you with a real world security consideration that could save you from returning home to an empty house. These days we all like to have lots of friends on social media sites such as Facebook. While it is nice to have hundreds of friends, we often accept contacts that we have only ever met once or twice. And these acquaintances could be an issue.

Apps such as Facebook and Gmail have a tendency to use your device’s GPS (sometimes automatically) to allow people to see where you are. Unfortunately, if one of your contacts (with a more malevolent character) notices that you are out of the country, they could decide to burgle your home. With that in mind, disabling the GPS and location based services on your devices is also a good idea.

Do remember, however, that every single member of your party needs to follow these recommendations for you to be safe as you travel. So prepare, do your best, and enjoy your holiday safe in the knowledge that your cybersecurity has been taken care of!

Ray Walsh, researcher and reporter at

Image Credit: Sidarta / Shutterstock