You're a road warrior. Or maybe you're a broke college student. Perhaps you just like to hang out at Starbucks for hours on end. Regardless of whether or not this describes you, you have probably used public or free WiFi at some point. I'm not judging you..it's free...and it's easy...and it works. But if there's one thing you take away from this post, please let it be this: NEVER enter a website or mobile app password while you are connected to public WiFi. Banking & shopping on public WiFi is literally that last thing I would recommend doing on a public WiFi network.
Many websites and even mobile apps, transmit your data unencrypted. Or it's encrypted, but it's not implemented properly. When this unencrypted data is transmitted, things like usernames, passwords, pins, and the websites you're visiting are in plain text. This data traffic can be "sniffed" and usernames, passwords, etc., can be pulled out. Now this may sound complicated, but it's actually a trivial affair with the right tools and a Google search or two.
Now as dire as that all sounds, it's actually not a major problem if you mitigate the risks. How do you mitigate the risks?
The answer goes by 3 initials - VPN.
VPN or Virtual Private Network used to be one of those things that was reserved for corporate environments or advanced users, mainly due to the difficulty in setting everything up. The age of the mobile app has changed that and now easy to use VPN programs are readily available and just an app store search away. VPN's encrypt your data traffic. A bad guy sniffing WiFi traffic would see that data is being transmitted, but he or she wouldn't be able to see what that traffic contained.
Currently, my two favorite VPN programs are proXPN and TunnelBear. Both offer free and paid options and both work on PC's, Mac's, Chromebooks, Smart Phones, and Tablets. There really isn't any reason to use public WiFi and not do it safely.
Start using a VPN and the next time you're in Starbucks and you notice the shady guy with the beady eyes peering over the screen of his laptop, you don't have to worry if he's sniffing YOUR data.