Think that coffee-shop Wi-Fi hotspot is secure? Think again. Most public hotspots, including those at airports, hotels, and even Starbucks, aren't secure at all. In fact, when your laptop connects to one of these networks, it’s easy pickings for hackers -- even if you have a firewall installed.
Fortunately, there's a simple fix: a virtual private network (VPN) that effectively makes your system invisible, thus protecting it from prying hacker eyes.
Most VPN software costs money, but if you're on a tight budget, check out AnchorFree’s HotSpot Shield. This free utility, available for Windows, Mac OS, and iOS, establishes a secure connection between your laptop and the company’s servers, then routes your Internet traffic through that connection so it stays private and hidden.
As an added bonus, this method also enables users outside the U.S. to access U.S.-only sites and content, so it’s a nice tool to have when traveling abroad.
HotSpot Shield has been around for a couple years, but a new version released not long ago adds an important feature to the mix: malware protection. If you try to access a domain that’s known to contain malware, the program will alert you -- and block the site.
Would you use this in place of your existing anti-malware software? No, because HotSpot Shield focuses exclusively on Web-based threats -- the stuff you encounter while browsing. So think of it as an additional layer of protection, one that kicks in when you’re hitting the hotspots.
In my quick tests, Hotspot Shield worked seamlessly, activating the VPN in just a few seconds and then getting out of the way while I browsed, checked e-mail, etc. I noticed no lag time during any of these activities.
The only caveat is that during installation, the program tries to install toolbars and other junk you definitely don’t want -- so clear all the checkboxes as you proceed through the installation screens.
Also, consider upgrading to the Elite version, which removes ads, optimizes bandwidth, and adds protection against other types of infected Web sites, including those that promulgate spam and attempt identity theft.
An annual HotSpot Shield Elite subscription costs $29.99, though you can also get it for $4.99 monthly. If you’re only an occasional public-hotspot user, you can buy Elite "day passes" for 50 cents apiece (in packs of 20).
Whatever version you use, Hotspot Shield is a great solution for staying safe at public hotspots. I definitely recommend taking it for a test-surf.