Using a VPN while abroad

Protecting your internet while abroad

When you are traveling abroad this summer you should keep in mind that you should secure your internet connection. While on holiday or on a work trip it’s nice to be able to check your emails, and check weather, flights, etc. But is doing so putting your computer at risk ? There have been numerous cases of peoples email passwords being stolen when using public WiFi or even worse, trojans being installed on your computer.

The basic rule here is not to trust any outside internet connection, even if you are just travelling to the next town or on a public WiFi in a library. All of these are open to attacks. There are also different types of attacks. Some are done by the person offering the WiFi network, while others can be performed by someone just being on the same network as you.

Protecting your internet while abroad

These public networks can monitor web traffic, and unless these connections are travelling over a secure & encrypted path, then usernames and passwords can be picked right out of the air. Many websites do use HTTPS for sending passwords, and on some it’s an extra option. When in doubt don’t send any personal information when you are not on a secured connection.

It’s possible to hijack the data that you are sending over this open network. But it can be avoid by using a VPN. A VPN will encrypt your internet traffic in the first stage, by creating a secure connection via your computer, going through the hotel / open WiFi, and to the VPN server. These severs can be in any location, e.g. the US, UK, or even Ireland. Then your request for a webpage will leave these servers from where it’s located, from a trusted source, rather than leaving directly from the coffee shop open WiFi.

This is why you should have a VPN plan, which costs about $8 per month. If you travel regularly, or use unprotected networks often, then this is a small price for keeping your computer and your personal details safe.

Detecting HTTPS / SSL connections

All banks, or at least all reputable banks, employ the SSL connections for your login to their online bank system. See below for an example of the green HTTPS in the URL. In internet browsers it’s often depicted with a green or blue https , or sometimes a green bar. The important bit is the https:// in the URL. If you click on the URL you can get some further information about the SSL certificate.

Bank SSL connection

Detecting a trojan on your computer

If you have been unlucky enough to have a trojan install on your computer you might notice it via the following symptoms

  1. Abnormal Behaviour: while this is a bit vague, but if you find your screen flickering , windows open for a second and then closing, or requests to access strange websites, then you should check your computer.
  2. Slower Computer Speed: as your computer gets older, it generally gets filled with programs and it might slow down naturally. But if you find that your computer is suddenly a lot slower, then you should look into this. The reason is that a trojan could be running in the background, potentially sending out nefarious traffic like emails or part of DOS (Denial of Service) attacks.
  3. E-Mail Symptoms: Is your email program acting strange ? Is it running slowly, taking a lot of time to send and receive emails, even though you are not sending many emails ? There might be a small program sending out emails on behalf of a spammer via your account. This could even result in your email account being banned by your ISP or email host.
  4. Offline Symptoms: Is your computer requesting access to the internet when you are offline ? This might be okay if you are looking at a webpage, or you’ve told your email client to send / receive emails. But if you computer is just sitting idle, then it is not normal for it to ask you to connect to the internet.
  5. Pop-Up Advertisements: if your internet browser starts to show your pop ups on random pages, that don’t seem related to the area you are surfing. Then you should check your internet settings, as the trojan may have changed how your browser connects to the internet.

If you have any of these symptoms then you should run your virus checker on your entire computer file system.

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Some Comments Left By Others

  1. JK says:

    How do you know you can trust the VPN provider that you are using ? Or is it a case of trusting them more than you trust the internet café or hotel lobby WiFi ?

    • Paul says:

      This is a fair point. I would do my research on the companies supplying the VPNs, ones that have been around the longest and have real contact details would be my preference. A lot of the have trials, so you can test them out to see if you like them or not. I would trust them more than an coffee shop / internet cafe in Barcelona for example.

  2. Jackie says:

    I had a friend who went to work with his laptop in china and it picked up some virus. Norton’s could detect what it was, but his machine was trying to contact china when he came back to work. The IT department had to reinstall his machine and now what thy do when managers are there you take a “china laptop & phone” and use that while there. They are then cleaned when you come back. Would a VPN protect against this ?

    • Paul says:

      A VPN would encrypt the data communications. But for protection against viruses and trojans you should have a virus checker & a firewall enabled, so that rouge network traffic can’t touch your computer. Also I would make sure that the laptop isn’t left out of your sight at any times, and be careful about using USB sticks that could be infected.

  3. David O'Malley says:

    Does VPN work over any of the mobile networks in Ireland?

    • Paul says:

      Yes they would. For mobile networks the traffic would still go through your provider, like 3, o2 or vodafone but encrypted. And then from there it would go to the VPN server, and out to the world wide web after that.

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