As Americans hit the road this summer for road trips and other vacations, many may be accessing public wireless networks along the way to stay in touch with friends and family back home, check their emails or do some research on their destination. Next month, college students will start heading back to campus, too, and begin using public computers in school libraries. However, consumers should be careful when logging into public networks to ensure their personal online information is safe.

While public Wi-Fi spots, such as those in coffee shops and airports, are convenient, they can also be a hot spot for cyber criminals. These Wi-Fi networks are ripe for hacker exploitation because they function much like old-fashioned telephone party lines, according to the University of Virginia's Information Technology website. Taking some extra steps for precaution can protect against the possibility of identity theft.

Wi-Fi Safety
If using a personal computer to access public Wi-Fi networks while on the go, there are a number of things you can do to protect the device from hackers. Before taking off on a trip, enable Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) connections on your most-used websites, The Los Angeles Times said. SSL connections encrypt the information exchanged on a website, making it difficult for hackers to access it. Gmail, Twitter and Facebook, for instance, have such SSL connection options. Clicking on the "Always Use HTTPS" option in Gmail and Twitter, for instance, will enable this security feature.

Turning off the Wi-Fi connection option on your computer before heading out to the airport or other destination where public networks are available is also a smart way to keep hackers out. This will ensure your computer does not hook up to a public network on its own, possibly putting your online information at risk. Once you have arrived at a destination and want to access the Internet, this Wi-Fi option can be turned back on.

For business travelers, using a virtual private network also ensures online safety while on the road. Many companies offer network access to employees while they are traveling, allowing them to hook up to the company's VPN outside the office. A VPN will act as a shield to outside attacks, the LA Times said.

Public Computer Safety
Public computers don't need to have anti-spyware programs installed on them – there are no regulations requiring such protection. So taking extra precaution becomes a necessity to ensure your personal information is kept secure.

Remembering to log out of a website is absolutely a must when using a public computer. Closing the browser window will not necessarily log a person out of a website, leaving that information accessible to the next person who uses the computer. Make sure websites, such as social networks, do not automatically save login information on the computer, as well.

Selecting the option to "browse privately" will also erase your tracks on a public computer. Erasing the history and temporary Internet files once you are done using the computer is another smart step.

Matt Cullina is chief executive officer of IDentity Theft 911.

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