Business today is fast moving and most of us work in a mobile environment. We love the proliferation of public Wi-Fi hotspots that let us check emails and go on the internet at coffee shops and other locations outside the home and office. But the truth is, when you’re on these public networks, your laptop could become an open book to a hacker sitting out in the parking lot.

It’s actually not that hard for someone with a little hacking experience and the appropriate free — that’s right, free! — software to get a pretty good idea of what you’re up to on the Web. It may not matter if they find you checking your latest issue of PowerTools — and if it’s this one, they might leave you alone and go look for another victim. But serious issues can occur when a hacker uncovers a password that lets them access personal data, corporate information, or any of your financial sites. That kind of security breach can be the ticket to an unmitigated disaster.

Fortunately, there are ways to protect yourself. No security safeguard is completely bulletproof, but there are simple precautions you can take that will block or discourage all but the most determined hackers.

1. Don’t lose physical control of your computer.
If someone else physically gets on your computer, anything can happen. Always keep an eye on your laptop. Look into getting laptop theft and alarm software as an added precaution.

2. Don’t use the same password for every website and account login. 
Having one password is like having one key for everything you own. If hackers crack your one special password, they have access to everything it was protecting. To keep track of all your passwords, keep a notebook in a secure location at home, or check out password managers like Roboform and LastPass.

3. Run anti-virus software.
Ask a computer tech expert for advice on this. Many feel Microsoft Security Essentials is pretty effective — and it’s free — but there are many other good anti-virus programs available.

4. Run a current operating system and download all the latest updates.
Many older operating systems, such as Windows XP, aren’t secure and leave you extremely vulnerable. There are many unpatched ways for hackers to get in and you won’t know until they’ve done it. So get a current version of your operating system with all the latest updates.

5. Make sure you’re logging onto the correct public Wi-Fi.
If you see similar network names, like “Java Stop Wi-Fi” and “Free Java Stop Wi-Fi”, check with the shop before selecting one. The other option could link your laptop to a “honeypot” set up by a hacker to easily grab data from unsuspecting users.

6. Check that nobody is looking over your shoulder.
The best approach? Sit with your back to a wall when working in public.

7. On public Wi-Fi, only log onto encrypted websites (those starting with “https://”).
Do not access sites over a public network that require a login that starts with just “http://”, not “https://”. Wait until you are home or back at the office.

8. Do not enter personal and financial information over a public Wi-Fi.
Don’t take unnecessary risks. It’s OK to log onto LinkedIn or Facebook on a public network. But don’t enter your credit card information to make an online purchase while on a public Wi-Fi. Do the transaction in your home or office.

If you regularly tap into public hotspots, you owe it to yourself to follow these tips…. Enjoy a great month!