Beware the temptation of free public Wi-Fi

We live in a mobile age. The smart phone’s taken over as a diary, camera and sat nav as well as a way of connecting to the internet. This means we use if for business, and banking. As this has developed, so has the imagination of those who use technology to plunder our bank accounts, and the latest warning is about smart phones. The picture is familiar: we’re in a café, hotel or railway station, and we log on to Wi-Fi to access the internet. We see Wi-Fi options and click on one that shows up as free, then assume we’re doing whatever it is in privacy.

The latest trick, however, is that thieves set up their own Wi-Fi, and we log onto that. Then when you use your mobile banking app they see what’s happening and divert funds from your account. Even if they don’t access your account immediately, the ease with which information can be taken from a phone means they can grab it for later use – whether for identity fraud or to access your accounts.

It’s sad that technology that’s so good is being subverted this way, but information has become the prize for criminals, making caution essential. If you have any doubts about a Wi-Fi connection, or if it has a tempting name like ‘free public Wi-Fi’, be suspicious. Unless it’s vital, don’t do anything sensitive on a Wi-Fi others can access. In a recent trial in London over 2,000 people logged on to a fraudulent Wi-Fi connection in a few hours – and over 100 accessed their bank in a way that would have made it easy to transfer funds from their account.

Still on the theme of information, there have been reports of people being denied credit for things such as mortgages, based on a poor credit score they did not expect. The problem is that those refused credit are not told why. Under data protection rules they can only be told ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers. The result can be that someone is refused an attractive deal or worse, refused completely, and they have no idea why.

What is emerging is that it can be a relatively small unpaid bill that’s destroying a credit score – often coming from those whose track record for getting such things right is less than impressive. You can only check your credit score with a service provider, such as Experian. They offer a 30-day free trial, but to get it you have to provide a debit or credit card. The fee is £14.99 a month, payable 30 days after registration, although it may be five days from that before you can use the service.

To be fair to Experian, it is efficient and will explain why your credit status is what it is. I’ve heard of examples where credit scores are bad for utility bills wrongly reported as unpaid.

Experian will work with you to identify the problem and when you dispute it successfully with a company they have a set time to remove it from the Experian database. Given the importance of credit checking in a risk averse financial market it might well pay to know your credit score. Note that the Experian charge includes £6.40 for identity protection you do not need, but this can be removed after the initial 30-day trial, making the service a relatively cheap way to know how you are viewed by the financial world, and so in a much stronger position to bargain for credit.

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