Beware of ID theft via Wi-Fi 

With agreements underway to install free wireless Internet connectivity throughout San Francisco and the Peninsula, it is a matter of considerably more than passing interest that the spread of easy Wi-Fi access has already triggered a whole new breed of identity theft hackers.

It is too early yet for statistics about how prevalent this new crime category is becoming, but the FBI cyber squad is well aware that laptop users at wireless hot spots such as airports, hotels and wireless cafés are increasingly being targeted by identity thieves.

Hackers find it comparatively simple to set up a look-alike Web address that distracted or unsophisticated laptop users might log onto and give out their credit information without noticing anything amiss. You might be shocked to learn that most laptops are configured to automatically search for open wireless portals and common router names such as Linksys — even when you are not attempting to get online.

Some 14.3 million American households already use wireless Internet, and this figure is projected to triple by 2010. And every advance in the convenience of electronic communication creates new opportunity for tech-savvy criminals to obtain your credit information and loot your personal funds.

If on-the-go laptop wireless usage becomes the latest wide-open hunting ground for identity thieves, this adds another strong argument for accepting the bid of Google and EarthLink to operate San Francisco’s proposed citywide wireless access.

Some of the more anti-business members of the Board of Supervisors are pressing to discard Mayor Gavin Newsom’s negotiations with Google and EarthLink and install a municipally owned-and-operated network. But surely it makes more sense that a consortium of Internet industry leaders could do a better job of protecting laptop users against hacker attacks than would some overburdened civil service department facing recurrent budget cuts.

In a story appearing last Friday in The Examiner business section, an out-of-town computer security analyst told how he attempted to reconnect to his San Francisco hotel’s free wireless Internet. This time two router networks with the same name popped up onto his laptop screen. The only difference was that one name began with a lowercase letter and the other one had a capital letter.

He clicked on the second address and connected. Then a screen popped up asking for his user name and password. Any number of less-sophisticated computer users might have simply handed over vulnerable personal data, but the visitor immediately realized his information was under attack and disconnected.

Our best advice for keeping your laptop transmissions safe while you are out and about is to just continue using the common sense precautions already drilled into Internet users. Connect only via the official services you usually use and think at least three times before typing in your password or any other personal information.

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Staff Report

Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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