Instead of answering from a technical point of view, I will address a few items people can do to make their use of unsecured networks less of a threat. Others will do a fine job of describing the system security measures; these are intended as "social security measures"
Things to do while connected to a secure network to prepare for your insecure adventure:
1. If you may have to use a credit card online, use one such as Citibank that allows you to get virtual account numbers. Each virtual number can have a 2 month expiration date a separate credit limit from your master account, and its own 3 digit security code. You can get several of these in advance while you are on a secure connection, then use them when you have to make purchases over an insecure connection. (Caution, though the Citi card appears to have the best virtual card program, you have to use the option in small print at the bottom instead of the one in big print in the middle of the box. Go to "advanced options" and choose "Generate virtual number with time & $ limit")
2. If you use similar passwords for all of your financial accounts, change the passwords of those accounts you may access while on the road, and don't make them too easy. Make sure the password is at least 8 characters and that at least one of the characters is a numeral and at least one is upper case - but don't make them all numbers, all upper case, repeating or sequential. After you return to your secure connection, change them again if you have used them on the road.
3. Any accounts that may be used on the road, make sure you log into those accounts while you are still on your secure network, and look for the option to remember you login name. Many of them now will store your login name as an encrypted string, so when you are on the road you can type in the password without ever transmitting the unencrypted login name from your machine. That will make it more difficult for someone listening in to your transaction being able to recognize or duplicate your login/password. The same encrypted login name being sent from a different machine will have the same public key, but cannot know the private or stored key needed to decrypt the login name.
4. After your last connection to your financial sites from your home computer, connect to any financial sites with your laptop and login. Often the financial site will challenge you with an extra security connection if your previous login was from a different computer. This way you won't have to enter the answer to your extra security challenge while you are on the unsecured network.
5. Move any files that contain personal financial information from your laptop's hard drive to a memory stick, then do a "disk cleanup" to make sure your recycle bin and temporary files that may contain private information from previous sessions are cleaned up. Then when you are on the road, make sure you remove the memory stick from the laptop before you connect to any unsecured router. Use the stick only when you have disconnected.
6. Password protect your laptop by requiring a power-on password. This is done in the system setup utility often accessible during power up of your laptop. Dell machines normally use F10 to access it, HP normally uses F12 and many other use either F2 or the DEL key to enter the system setup utility.
7. Be sure to turn off file and printer sharing on your laptop before you take it on the road, if you have it enabled. This is generally done in the "network connections."
8. If your computer is configured to automatically login when you boot it, or if it does not require a password, reconfigure it to ask for a password - and don't make the password too obvious.
9. If you use an email client such as Outlook Expess, configure it to download headers only instead of the entire email. That way you can screen the emails you will open while on the road, and you can avoid opening up any emails that may contain private financial or personal information or passwords. Ordinarily the mail client downloads the entire message, possibly making the contents of the message vulnerable to snooping.
10. Make sure all operating system and application security patches are up to date, and that your antivirus and other threat prevention/detection programs are completely updated. When you are on an unsecured connection is not the best time to do the updates.
11. Check your Microsoft Security Center to make sure there are no outstanding alerts about possible security vulnerabilities on your computer. If there are any, address them before you leave.
Once you are on the road, observe the following precautions:
1. Watch when you are connecting that the name of the wireless router you are connecting to is the real router name. These days the desk or the clerk will have that information available. I saw one hijack attempt in which the strongest signal was coming from "Comfort net", but the correct connection was to "Comfort Inn." I was in the back corner of the Comfort Inn and their signal was much weaker at that point. The stronger signal was from someone in a van in the parking lot - until the police arrived.
2. Watch your back. It may seem "un-cool" or paranoid to check for people watching your online activities, but it is much better to be un-cool than a victim. Position yourself such that your body or your bag prevents others from clearly seeing your keyboard and screen. Be aware of who may be watching you - be a little paranoid even.
3. When computing in a public place, turn down the backlighting on your screen so the screen is still readable to you, but someone farther away would have a tough time reading it. You may also wish to use a higher-resolution display setting so the letters on the screen appear smaller, and therefore more difficult to read from a distance. (Keep reading glasses handy instead of using giant fonts.)
4. Avoid connecting to sites that may have your financial & personal information unless you absolutely need to use them.
5. When you no longer need to use the connection, right-click on the wireless icon in your system tray and actually disconnect. Just closing your browser does not disconnect you.
6. Keep a log of any purchases you make and the account you used, then reconcile them with your statements as they arrive after your trip.
7. Don't leave your computer unsecured in your room while you are gone - and certainly not logged in and ready to go. Make sure it is shut down and that you have configured it to require a power-on password and a windows login password.
Things to do when you get back to your secure environment:
1. Change the password on any email accounts that have been used while on the road. If someone was snooping, they could have intercepted your email client as it connected to your mail server. Changing the password when you get home makes sure that anyone who may have gained access to your email account can no longer do so.
2. Change the passwords on any financial accounts you used while on the road.
3. Watch your statements and make sure the only charges made were the ones you logged. Follow up on any inconsistencies or charges that you may not have made.
4. Cancel any unused virtual account numbers you created before you left, and change the dollar maximum to match what you actually charged to them.
There are probably other ideas too, but these should be considered "basic." Computers are very useful on the road, and they can be very safe as long as you take precautions.
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