BE AWARE – Never use the charging port at an airport

By Thomas Bywater

The FBI has handed us another reason for travel paranoia.

Airport public charging stations are a lifesaver. If, like me, you travel with a perpetually half-drained phone – the ubiquitous USB charging ports are the difference between catching a flight, and not.

Carrying virtual boarding passes, itineraries and travel documentation on your phone requires keeping an eye on battery life. However, last week, the Federal Bureau of Investigations put out a warning for travellers to think twice before plugging in.

“Avoid using free charging stations in airports, hotels or shopping centres,” the FBI said in public service messaging last week.

The Denver branch of the organisation sent a tweet last week that rattled travellers. Although the warning was not believed to be linked to any specific threat, several government agencies issued similar warnings for travellers to be mindful of their “cyber hygiene” when charging phones in public places.

It’s increasingly possible for “bad actors” to access data, or introduce malware and spyware on travellers’ devices via public ports.

USB ports are hard to avoid. You’ll find them, free of use, at international airports, cafes and hotels. However, experts are warning that people could be using their convenience to gain access to users’ information.

New Zealand’s cyber security agency CERT says it also advises travellers to avoid charging phones in public places.

Avoid using free charging stations in airports, hotels or shopping centres. Bad actors have figured out ways to use public USB ports to introduce malware and monitoring software onto devices. Carry your own charger and USB cord and use an electrical outlet instead.

— FBI Denver (@FBIDenver) April 6, 2023

Cert NZ spokesman Hadyn Green says “do not plug your devices into unknown USB ports.”

Cert was aware of scammers using devices, posing in public places as charging ports.

The only way to be sure you aren’t exposing your device is by using a mains adaptor.

“This can be difficult as new phones are sold without a power plug and only the USB cable. So before you travel it’s worth buying a plug so you’ve got a safe option for charging your device.”

Travel adaptors with USB fittings or multi-plugs can be a good way of keeping devices charged safely, on the go.

Has my phone been infected?

Losing battery life quickly, overheating or higher data usage can be a sign your device might be infected. Spyware working in the background of your phone can slow down operations.

Cert advises keeping your files and mobile data backed up – using services such as iCloud – and keeping your phone up to date.

Public charging ports aren’t the only cyber trap targeting travellers. Public Wi-Fi can also expose your devices and data to potential scams.

“Be careful about what you do online when you’re using a hotspot or free Wi-Fi. These networks are untrusted, meaning that it’s possible that others could see what you’re doing when you use them.”

Travellers should avoid online shopping or accessing Internet banking on public Wi-Fi.


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