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Urgent warning for Aussies connecting to free WiFi: 'Evil twin'

Hackers are able to set up networks that look legitimate but they can gain access to your personal information very easily.

Phone showing free wifi next to people on their phones
There are hidden dangers lurking when you connect to certain free Wi-Fi networks in public. (Source: Getty)

Aussies have been put on notice about the hidden dangers of connecting to a free Wi-Fi network in public places like a cafe or airport. While it might seem convenient or cheaper than using your own network data, you could be unwittingly handing over your most personal information to scammers.

A Perth man was recently arrested over claims he set up an "evil twin" Wi-Fi network on a plane journey. Staff were confused when they saw the suspicious free network that was identical to the one offered by the airline.

Michael Clapsis has been accused by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) of setting up the twin network to harvest passengers' details and it serves as a warning to others about the dangers of connecting to free Wi-Fi options.

Police allege that when passengers connected to the wi-fi network created by Clapsis on a flight to Perth, they were taken to a website set up by the 42-year-old.

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There, they would input personal information like email addresses or social media accounts, which could be used to access stored images and banking details.

He allegedly used a portable wireless device stored in his luggage to set up the network on the plane.

He's been released on bail after being charged with nine cybercrime offences. He will reappear in court next month.

In a separate case, Alex Carlton connected to a free Wi-Fi network in Sydney Airport last year when travelling to the United Kingdom.

It wasn't until she arrived at her destination that she realised she had been hacked. The only information she had disclosed when connecting to the Wi-Fi network was where she was going.

But that was enough for hackers to infiltrate her bank account.

In an article for Escape, Carlton revealed that she discovered someone had used her details at Guzman y Gomez while she was flying.

Her bank warned her that hackers usually start with small charges, like fast food orders, to check if the stolen banking information can be used.

Thankfully she put a block on her card to prevent any more funds from being withdrawn.

Australians are being warned to consider what documents they share while connected to public Wi-Fi as they can be intercepted on unsecure networks.

A New South Wales man sent his parents identity documents while connected to a free service recently.

Gaining access to the confidential documents meant hackers were able to steal the man's identity.

"He was told he owed over $7,000 in fees to a company, for the purchase of gift cards and digital subscriptions that were sent to unknown email addresses," the Australian Cyber Crime Centre revealed.

"On investigation, he found there were multiple inquiries on his credit report around the same time. The first credit inquiry happened not long after travelling overseas, where he had used his laptop."

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The Cyber Crime Centre urged Aussies to be extremely careful about which Wi-Fi network they connect to in public.

“Your internet connection is a way for you to interact with the outside world, but it also provides a channel into your computer," it said.

"If your internet connection isn't secure someone may use it to steal your personal or financial information for malicious purposes. Avoid sending or receiving valuable or sensitive information when connected to public Wi-Fi networks.”

If you're in public and see a bunch of Wi-Fi networks, here's what you need to do:

  • Check the hotspot’s name on signage, or directly with staff at the venue

  • Prevent your device from automatically connecting to the service and disable features such as “auto-join” or “auto-connect” for public hotspots

  • Choose hotspots that require a password and try to avoid “open” or “unsecure” networks

  • As an extra precaution, you can choose to ‘forget’ the network in your Wi-Fi settings after you have finished using it. This will prevent your device from automatically reconnecting in the future

  • If in doubt, do not connect to the hotspot. Instead, wait until you can use a trusted network such as your home, office or mobile connection

If you're connected to a public Wi-Fi network you should be very careful about opening sensitive information or apps like your banking services, as criminals don't need much to take everything you have.