Ahhhh, how we all love the lure of public Wi-Fi. The ability to surf the web for free on our smartphones, tablets, and laptops saves us from the restrictions of limited data plans and turns every Starbucks into a mobile office. Free public Wi-Fi can be essential for students and small business owners alike, but with the convenience comes plenty of risk. Here are some tips to make sure you’re surfing safely.

Make sure you're using the Wi-Fi network you think you are. One way scammers try to access your information is by offering another Wi-Fi network that looks similar to the one you’re supposed to be using. For example, you’re sitting in Starbucks and you see two different networks available to connect, let’s call them “Starbucks” and “Starbucks_open”. You might think that they both belong to the company, so you just pick the one with the strongest signal, right? Not so fast. One of those networks could be set up with a similar SSID (network name) to the company to intentionally lure you into connecting to a private router set up by someone in the store. Once you’re connected, it’s fairly simple for that person to track all of your internet activity, including your login ids and passwords. If you’re not sure which network actually belongs to the actual business, ask someone. Also, turn off the setting on your smartphone that automatically connects when it detects a new network. Having to go in and manually connect can ensure you’re picking the correct Wi-Fi.

Don’t be a Good Samaritan. Another way someone may try to get to you is by leaving a USB drive behind. Otherwise known as a flash drive or thumb drive, this innocent looking little storage device could hold nasty little malware just waiting to get to your computer. The idea is that you’ll see the device and insert it into your own machine to try to figure out who it belongs to. In your desire to help, you’ve inadvertently opened yourself to a virus or other malware. If you find any type of storage device, leave it at the front desk. Also, when choosing where to sit, don’t rely on the goodness of strangers either. Some scammers take the low-tech route of simply looking over your shoulder to steal personal information. The best (and safest) seats in the house are those where you can still with your back to a wall.

Keep your business to yourself. Unless it is absolutely necessary, web activities like personal banking, online shopping, and bill paying should be done at home or on a secure network. If it is an emergency, use the data service on your smartphone (as opposed to a Wi-Fi network) to access any personal information. Even if you’re checking one of your social media accounts, it’s best to do so through an app on your phone where you’ve already logged in, rather than logging in using a Wi-Fi network. When in doubt, just wait.

Public Wi-Fi can be very convenient and useful for when you’re on the go, and can save you money depending on your data plan. But you have to be careful in public spaces and use caution to make sure you’re safe online. Happy (safe) surfing!

Follow tech-life expert Stephanie Humphrey on Twitter.