Recently, I was on the lookout for a free Wi-Fi hotspot available in Toronto. I’d purchased a wireless device and wanted to try it out online. Not having a home network, a free hotspot was my only immediate option. I believe the number of available options was about eight.

That number is constantly on the rise, but by now I’d expected free wireless access to be as ubiquitous as free e-mail addresses. I remember receiving my first e-mail address as a student at the University of Toronto in 1993. At that time, it was a rarity but within three years everyone had one. Wi-Fi hotspots have been widely available for, let’s say, about three years. Shouldn’t the city be blanketed with free access by now?

Perhaps I’m lucky I didn’t manage to find a spot near my home or office, seeing as free Wi-Fi appears to be the latest stage for phishing scams. It’s bad enough that my e-mail accounts, both home and work, are rife with messages inviting me to part with my bank/credit card/eBay account/life insurance information. Now the actual onramp to the Internet is suspicious as well.

It used to be that the biggest security concern with Wi-Fi was people jumping on unsecured networks in homes and offices. Now these users are being invited to join criminally operated ones.

Hackers are using free Internet hotspots, primarily airports, as means to trap unsuspecting surfers. By turning their laptops into ad hoc peer-to-peer networks, they can disguise themselves as legitimate Wi-Fi access points. Users search for free Wi-Fi, notice the P2P network and log on thinking its just a free service provided by the airport. Unbeknownst to them, the hacker is able to see where they’re going and scoop up passwords and login information.

Presumably the bulk of airport Wi-Fi users are business travelers who would be cautious about how and where they log onto the Internet. But when the genuine article is indistinguishable from the ersatz, it’s hard to take the high ground. These airport hackers are able to mask their presence so that they seem in every way to be a legitimate Wi-Fi network.

In this case, it should really be up to the aviation authorities to police these situations better. You’d think airports would be more secure, seeing as it’s difficult to get onto a plane with so much as a tube of toothpaste these days, but managing Internet traffic doesn’t seem to be their strong point. Unfortunately, the only reliable – and I lose the term loosely – means of combating Internet theft is to educate users about safe surfing practices. The list of potential pitfalls is growing and it’s becoming more difficult to stay abreast of criminal schemes.

I genuinely miss the days when the Internet was an unknown quantity. Sure, it was the Wild West back in 1993, but the Web was more about pioneers than bandits.

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