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Secure connection: How to protect yourself from hackers on public Wi-Fi

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ROCKFORD (WREX) -

Free and for the taking.  Most of us hop on Wi-Fi wherever we can find it.

The minute you make the connection, though, you could be letting hackers into your world without even knowing it.  

In this busy world, we're constantly trying to get more done, that usually means getting online.  Access to Wi-Fi has become the norm.  Not just in our homes.  It's expected to be everywhere we are.  At coffee shops to the corner drug store, we're wired.

"I work out of my home, I'm a freelancer," said an aunt we found busy on her laptop at Meg's Daily Grind recently in Rockford.

"Do you think you have a false sense of security," asked 13 News Anchor Sean Muserallo.  She said, "Some people say that I am too trusting sometimes. But you know, I tend to look at the good side of things."

Her 11 year-old-niece was busy browsing the web, too, across the table from her.

"When do you jump on your phone and jump on Wi-Fi," asked Muserallo.  "Usually everyday after school pretty much, said the girl.

Both of them were on the coffee shops Wi-Fi at the time.

So how in danger are we really?  Muserallo recently met up with network security expert Matt Marinaro at the Rockford coffee shop to find out.

"It's actually pretty scary to actually see what people are capable of doing," said Marinaro.

Those were his thoughts after doing some simple research for this story.  Some of it he'd heard before, but what scared him the most is what he hadn't heard of.  In particular, a program so dangerous in the wrong hands, he didn't want to call it by its name.

"There's software out there for less than $100," said Marinaro.  

"What does that software allow them to do," asked Muserallo.  

"They can read email, text, contacts.  They can read everything live what you're sending," said Marinaro

It's his job to stay on top of trends for his clients, which are mostly businesses.  His expertise applies to your family phones, too.

"The double networks.  Watch out for that," said Marinaro.  "That's a huge thing to watch out for."

Those are how hackers lure you onto a fake Wi-Fi accounts to steal your information.

 "If you see of two of these networks, like this 'ThanksForYourPurchase' that should be a red flag instantly," said Marinaro.  He added there should not be two of the same Wi-Fi accounts for you to long onto.

If there are, he said don't log on until you've gotten this simple, important question answered...

"I would ask the cashier or the owner of the business that I was at for the specifics, like 'Hey, is there a password?'  If there's not, I'm not touching either one of them because I don't know which one is the right one or the wrong one, and I guarantee they don't either," said Marinaro.

Do you leave your Wi-Fi connecting all the time?  Constantly searching for a network to connect to?  Marinaro said hackers are constantly searching for phones spinning the dial for a connection.

"If the Wi-Fi is on, they need a minimum of 30 seconds to 2 minutes of you being on and they can get to you," said Marinaro.  "I say don't keep that Wi-Fi thing on all the time."

It's not all bad news.  Smartphone makers are always tweaking the software.

"There are some positives with these companies that do push out updates for your phones," said Marinaro.  "It's good to do the updates for your phones because it's helping to close some of the security breaches."

And he said  just like you have antivirus protection on your desktop or laptop, there's an app for that. 

"It basically is for the virus side of things," said Marinaro.  "Opening up a bad attachment or picture. You'd go to an app store to get it.  There are certain companies that already make it for computers, so it's the same companies that just have an app for your phone."

And if you're carrying more than your fair share of sensitive documents on your actual smartphone an RF Shield may be the barbed wire you're looking for.

"It's a sleeve, like a pocket for your phone, or portable sleeve that supposedly blocks off the RF signals that come into your phone," said Marinaro.  

It means, he said, no information is getting in or out when it's in the protective sleeve.  A true block for hackers.

"The problem is the minute you take your phone out of it, you're unprotected again," said Marinaro.  "You can't talk with it in the sleeve."

The simplest thing you can do is to look up from your phone and scope out the crowd in the room before you jump onto a free Wi-Fi account.

"Look and see if you're okay," said Marinaro.  "It's like when you go shopping.  You're in a mall, you kind of look around.  Those are the things that the minute I look at wireless and I go I'm either jumping out or I'm not getting on here, it is what it is."

Business owners, you need to watch out too.  Just last month, a Serbian man was arrested for hacking into a Chicago-area software company's computer system.  The alleged hacker wanted $40,000 dollars to not release the sensitive information.  Instead, he was caught and the company is safe.

But it proves hackers are out there, so securing your network is important if you're a family or Fortune 500 company.

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