Barnes & Noble offers free wireless Internet. So does MacDonald's … Hampton Inn … and Starbucks. Customers can't get enough of it.
One said, " I think it's a great convenience and sort of like a community environment."
Another told us, "Home is distracting, so I come here so that I can actually get work done."
A third says, "It's very reliable."
But is it safe to go online in public places, through a Wi-Fi hotspot? Consumer Reports engineer Dean Gallea says you have to be careful.
Dean warns, "You're actually connecting into a computer network with strangers. And a hacker can get at personal information that you provide, or even trick you into connecting to a fake hotspot."
To illustrate, Dean parked near a Starbucks with his laptop. Outside, his colleague was logging on. A phony "Starbucks Free" connection that Dean created came up at the top of the list.
Dean says, "She chose my fake hotspot instead of the real one, so she'll be seeing a fake Web page I set up and I'll be able to see any personal information she types in."
Consumer Reports says before logging on to public Wi-Fi, be sure to confirm the name of the wireless network connection. In this case, it wasn't Starbucks - but rather A-T-T Wi-Fi down the list.
Another precaution - before sending personal information like a credit-card number, look for the letters "https" in the address bar … not simply "http." The "s" means the data leaving your computer is sent securely.
A padlock is another sign of a secure connection.
Dean adds, "But your best protection when you're connected to a public hotspot is just not to send any personal information at all."
Consumer Reports says there's another important step to take to keep your information secure at public hotspots. You should disable your laptop's file and printer sharing features. This will prevent people on the wireless network from gaining access to your personal documents. Check your computer's Help menu to find out how to do this.