Five years ago, there were only a handful of wireless Internet hotspots. Today there are hundreds if not thousands. And because they’re made to be easily accessible, they’re wonderlands for evil geeks who can sift through your mail, monitor info you’re transmitting or even access your hard drive. If you log in at a café or other public place, follow these rules.

Check the name
As you search for networks, chances are you’ll see something called “Free Public Wi-Fi”. Don’t connect. It could be a trap. Hackers set up networks with friendly, inviting names, hoping unsuspecting users will join. Once you do, you’re compromised. Before you connect to a network, confirm its name with someone – a coffee shop employee, say.

Browse wisely
Hackers may still watch you through legitimate networks, so don’t send passwords or credit card info over public Wi-Fi. If you must, do it only on websites with addresses that start with “https”. (These are more secure than the usual http sites.)

Heed warnings
Most error messages are indecipherable – what’s a 404 code, anyway? – but here’s one you must heed: a warning about a site’s certificate being expired or invalid. That’s tech lingo for “a hacker may be intercepting everything you do”. If you see this message, check the URL; you may have mistyped it. Try once more, and if the message pops up again, stop what you’re doing, shut down your computer and don’t use that Wi-Fi hotspot. There’s a high risk that the network has been infiltrated.

Secure your folders
Computers have public folders – often storing your music and photos – and they’re easily made available to anyone using the same network. Make sure you don’t keep anything personal in those folders. To be even more safe, store any private documents on your computer in a password-protected folder, out of the reach of digital intruders.

Buy your own network
Instead of risking your security on public networks at all, why not travel with your own Internet access? Mweb offers 3G/HSDPA (wireless broadband Internet on the move. No phone lines or cables required) from R179 per month. www.mweb.co.za

Update security
Block gremlins from the start. Keep your antivirus and antispyware programs up to date. These protect you against common attacks. Windows offers a free spyware program at www.microsoft.com.

Delete previous network searches
Your computer remembers every network it connects to, and it will automatically connect to one it recognises. The bad guys know that, and create networks with names that have been commonly used before (“Linksys”, for example) so your computer will choose it. To avoid that, find the list on your computer (the option is often called “manage wireless networks”) and clear out anything old.