Nothing beats the convenience of being able to hit the road with your laptop, finding a free Wi-Fi network, and being productive in what otherwise would be dead time. Being able to check your email, do some research, or even say goodnight to your kids via webcam from a coffee shop or an airport waiting lounge is a huge boon to business travelers, but if you’re not careful, it can turn into a huge bust.

You may think you’re safe and secure working on your own password-protected computer, but that false sense of security can be your downfall unless you take a few easy steps to ensure that you’re surfing safely.

Before you hit the road

There are several things you can do to protect your data on the road before you ever leave home:

  • Ask your coworkers. If you have an IT department and you’re using a company computer, talk to them and follow their advice – they’ll know the best way to keep their company’s computers secure.
  • VPN! If your company uses a Virtual Private Network (VPN), make sure the proper software is installed and test it out before you go. A VPN creates a secure connection to your company’s servers and is the most secure way to work away from the office.
  • Check your webmail. Make sure you are able to log on to the webmail portal for any email addresses you use, and then make sure the connection is secure. Google now uses secure (SSL) connections as the default for all their email connections, but the best way to tell is that the URL for the domain should begin with “https” instead of simply “http.”

Find some Wi-Fi

Not every hotspot is the same; so if you have multiple options, choose wisely.

  • Avoid personal networks. There may be an open Wi-Fi network from an apartment upstairs from the coffee shop that you can log into without jumping through any hoops, but it’s not worth the risk.
  • Assume the worst. Remember, just because the Wi-Fi network is owned by the multi-national corporation where you’re having coffee or eating lunch, it doesn’t mean it’s secure. A network is only as secure as the other users on it at the same time, so always take precautions.
  • A password does not equal safety. Also, just because a network asks for a password, it still doesn’t mean it’s secure. Often the login is just to keep track of usage demographics.

Before you log on

Once you get out on the road and find your hotspot, there are a few things you need to remember to make sure that you’re the only one reading your emails.

  • If you have VPN access, turn it on. This should protect anything you do
  • Quit your email application. Unless you’re certain that your email client applications are using secure connections (or you’re using a VPN), you’re probably better off using the secure (SSL) connection option most providers offer with their web mail.
  • Quit any other internet-connected applications. If you’re not sure if an application connects to the internet, it’s best to just not have it open. To see what applications are open on a PC, push Alt-Tab, on a Mac use Command-Tab.
  • Make sure the firewall software on your computer is active and turn sharing off.

Before you start surfing

We’re almost there, but there are just a few last things to keep in mind to make sure everything goes well.

  • Think about next time. When you find a network to log on to, consider setting your computer so that you do not automatically log in to that network the next time it’s in range. If you return to the same place, you might forget to take the above precautions and be automatically logged on.
  • Be careful where you surf and what you download. Take the same precautions you always take – none of the above will protect you from accidentally downloading viruses or malware.
  • Beware nosy neighbors. Don’t forget the low-tech type of theft – if you’re emailing trade secrets from an industry convention, just a glance at your screen may be enough to cause some damage.

Most of us have logged on to an open network at some point without taking any precautions and everything worked out fine, and there’s no reason that you couldn’t do that again, but it’s like leaving the front door of your house unlocked – you might be able to get away with it 99 times out of 100, but it’s the exception that proves the rule. Securing your computer on a wireless network is basically the same thing – you might get away with it most of the time, but you don’t want to be that exception.