Coffee House Survival Tip: Watch Out for Free WiFi

Connecting to the Internet via WiFi while traveling or in a public coffee houseWhile I don’t normally get into Internet connection tips on this site, the following topic is so important that all entrepreneurs and small business personnel should be made aware of it.

That is: watch out for so-called “free public WiFi” connections.

Let’s say you are traveling on business or just want to enjoy the company of others by going to a public place like a coffee house to work, instead of staying isolated in your office. (Hey, I’ve been on plenty of business calls where I could hear the whir of the espresso machine in the background!)

You open your laptop. You check your wireless connections to see if there is an open and free WiFi network.

You happen upon something called “free public WiFi.” Sounds like exactly what you need, right?

Well, not so fast.

In the past few months as I’ve traveled, I kept coming across these networks designated “free public Wi-Fi” to the point they seemed ubiquitous. But in a way the designation “free public WiFi” struck me as too obvious — like a come-on. Some small voice inside told me to avoid those WiFi networks. Good thing I did.

A recent article in Small Business Computing points out those networks are most likely being set up for nefarious purposes. They are what is known as “ad-hoc” networks and seldom are ad-hoc networks used to deliver Internet access. More likely they are there to spy on computers or infect them with malware. The article also has some good tips for how to recognize an ad-hoc network and avoid having your computer automatically connect to it.

Read it so you can protect yourself when you are working outside the office.


Anita Campbell Anita Campbell is the Founder, CEO and Publisher of Small Business Trends and has been following trends in small businesses since 2003. She is the owner of BizSugar, a social media site for small businesses.

10 Reactions
  1. One of my favorite places to work is at random coffee houses I encounter. More often than not I have to settle for a Starbucks. (I understand this may not entirely fit the content of this recent blog post but…) But why do I have to settle for paying $10 to access the internet. Starbucks has seemed to be overcome with the Tmobile network…and its the only way to access the internet from their shop. All the while, I can go to a caribou and get free internet at least for an hour without question. Or to the local joe shop and have free roam until my laptop batter can no longer sustain. With over 9,000 starbucks locations, you’d think I could get by without my Tmobile account…and $10 access fee. anyone have alternative help?

  2. Anita,
    Timely post. Free WiFi seems to be popping up everywhere. More and more people are taking their laptops to coffee shops, bagel shops and other venues that promote their “free” WiFi connection.

    How or where does a VPN [Virtual Private Network] fit in the equation of safe computing on a wireless connection?

    @Mark Jewell: Isn’t Starbucks switching to AT&T where any registered Starbucks card will entitle the holder to two hours of free WiFi per day [or something similar]?

  3. @Mark Jewell: David Damore is correct — Starbucks recently launched an arrangement with ATT. If you register for a Starbucks loyalty card, you get up to 2 hours of free WiFi per day. It’s a smart move and I’m surprised other chains haven’t done it (hotels, restaurants, airports, etc.). Sign up here:

    @David Damore: free WiFi is a wonderful thing. Most of the time when you go to a coffee shop or other public place that offers it, the free WiFi is completely legit. My only concern is with these bogus networks that call themselves with a name that’s such a come-on, like “Free Public Wifi” in the list of wireless connections (legit networks usually are not named that). Or like the one I stumbled on recently named “Bob Hacked Me” — I don’t think I’d be clicking to connect to any wireless connection with the word “hacked” in it!

    As far as VPNs, if you’re one of the people who is given access by the network administrator to the private network, then I wouldn’t worry about it. Most times the VPN network will be protected against third parties getting access by requiring a password. For instance, I sometimes see VPNs on my iTouch or laptop when searching for a connection. But since I would need a password to log in anyway, I just pass them by.

    The issue with the adhoc networks that the article I cited mentions, is that people like us do not need a password to connect to them. In fact they are designed specifically to try to lure people to connect to them, what with naming the network “Free Public WiFi” in such a come-on way and not requiring a password.

  4. Martin Lindeskog

    We offered our customers at Blue Chip Café & Business Center free internet access via our own secure and safe WLAN as an added service. We issued a login code and the customer could use our network for a time period. We used a system by Nomadix (nowadays a part of NTT DOCOMO interTouch).

    Have you heard about Fon and Wippies?

  5. Sigh… So now coffee shop wi-fi has fallen to spammers and malware. At least my public library is still OK. (And their coffee’s not bad!)

  6. Anita Campbell

    @Martin: who the heck are Fon and Wippies? Never heard of ’em 🙂

    @Andertoons: Mark, generally your coffee shop’s free WiFi is OK. Just make sure you’re connecting to the coffee shop’s official WiFi and not some bogus set-up.

    — Anita

  7. I tend to connect to whatever network is available in a given area. This definitely makes me think twice about that practice. Maybe I should invest in an Air Card or something. They just seem to be a pretty expensive solution, especially since there are so many networks to connect to for free.

  8. Thank you for touching on this subject. I have always been curious as to how safe free WiFi connections are and what to look out for. I printed out the Small Business Computing article so I will always know how to tell the difference.

  9. Martin Lindeskog


    Fon and Wippies are two systems of shared wireless networks. Fon is based in Spain and Wippies in Finland.

  10. In my day job I’ve setup ZoneCD several times successfully. It even includes DansGuardian (a content filtering program) to keep unwanted content etc off line. You’re correct that lots of folks don’t get the risks associated with open, free wifi. But it doesn’t have to be that way. A little education goes a very long way.