Wi-Fi potential feeding ground for online hackers

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) It's pretty easy to search for WiFi connections that would allow someone to jump onto your computer, or even your smartphone since they carry much of the same information and capabilities.

The sister station to WMBF News in Columbus, Georgia, discovered a problem right in their TV station. An iPhone was connected to unsecured wireless Internet.

"That's my user name!" said a sales rep who saw her information on a computer expert's laptop. "So you can get into my iPad, my Mac desktop at home."

Here at WMBF News, one of our sales reps was already a victim.

Several years ago, Sandy Brown lost $5,000 when a thief hacked into her laptop over WiFi. She thinks it happened at a coffee shop during a weekend trip to North Carolina.

"That was kind of the first thing that I thought about was, was it because of the wireless?" Brown recalled of the loss.

WMBF News brought a computer expert into Sandy's home in Murrells Inlet to show her how to make her family's Internet connections more secure.

"Anytime you're in a wireless system," Brian Parnell told her, "you're kind of in there along with anyone else in the system that's good, bad or otherwise. And public spots in some ways are kind of like African watering holes. It's a great place for predators to hang-out."

We then took Parnell for a ride, asking him to show us examples of regular folks on the South Strand who could be vulnerable. He used a program on his laptop to search for those with WiFi connections wide open for anyone to use, meaning, no password required.

"I'm looking at seven networks," he told us that day. "Only one is encrypted."

He called it "crazy" because "anyone with malicious intent could set right here and get free Internet and download anything they want."

In Columbus, Georgia, our colleagues discovered a Chick-Fil-A where it was easy to crack the restaurant's wireless Internet.

Owners of the restaurant tell Raycom News they have an independent company providing security for customers online there.

In addition, the sister station also discovered a tax preparation business with a security problem, namely a WiFi connection without a password.

"I'll put a call right into my IT person," said a woman inside the business.

Back on the Grand Strand, our computer expert recommends that if you're going to use WiFi in a public place make sure you're behind a computer firewall, don't linger too long online, and try to visit only encrypted websites.

Those are the ones that begin with HTTPS.

And at home, make sure your WiFi router is protected with a hard-to-guess password.

Related Stories:

Copyright 2011 WMBF News. All rights reserved.