For travellers who would rather not activate mobile data roaming on their phone or get an international SIM card, we often turn to free public WiFi abroad. But just how safe is the practice of connecting your device to an unknown hotspot?

The World Tourism Organisation reported that international tourist arrivals last reached a total of 1.322 million worldwide. As the number of global travellers grow, so do the number of virtual fraudsters.

According to personal virtual private network service provider NordVPN, hackers often utilise free WiFi hotspots to steal personal information, credit card details and other data. In other words, think twice before you connect to an unknown WiFi when overseas.

NordVPN digital privacy expert Daniel Markuson said the onus should be on the travellers to stay vigilant – not travel service providers.

“If you think your hotel’s WiFi is more secure, it’s probably not. Their job is to offer you comfort, not cybersecurity, so they typically put little to no effort in protecting their guest network,” he revealed.

However, Markuson concurred that WiFi is indispensable for travellers today.

“We need it to book hotels, trips, experiences, and stay in contact with our family and friends. Even maps or travel itineraries are mostly online these days,” he said.

For travellers who wish to stay connected to public WiFi, there are some ways to keep safe.

Don’t join new network blindly

Chances are cybercriminals often lurk on unprotected network. There are also cases where hackers create rogue hotspots to trick unsuspecting travellers. If you notice two similar WiFi names, check with the hotel’s staff which is the real deal. It’s important to avoid logging into your banking accounts while on public WiFi.

Enable firewall before travelling

Most operating systems today have a built-in firewall, which keeps outsiders from going through your computer’s data. A firewall is easy to enable – simply check your system preferences or control panel instructions. The firewall won’t completely protect from hacks, but it’s a useful tool if used in combination with other security-enhancing services.

Log into a VPN

Travellers should consider using a VPN abroad as it encrypts traffic flow between the Internet and a user’s device and helps hide the IP address. However, stay clear of free VPN service providers that typically rely on third-party advertisers to cover the costs. Some free proxy services marketed as VPNs only change your IP address but do not encrypt your Internet traffic.

Check if the website address includes ‘https’

Only access websites that have URLs starting with “https”. The “s” means that it is a secure protocol and your data is encrypted properly. Using https sites is especially important if you are paying for hotels, trips or flights using your credit card details.

Don’t forget antivirus

Use an antivirus software at all times to protect your network from malware. However, using an antivirus only is not enough to keep your system secure. A hacker can check whether the antivirus will detect malware and if so, they can easily modify the malicious code and try again.