PORTLAND -- Free Wi-Fi service is exploding across the U.S. Hotspot trackers estimate there are now more than 65,000 free access points and counting.
Are they safe from hackers?
In Portland alone, there are an estimated 500 places to access the Internet for free.
"I'm always a little paranoid with using Internet stuff even if it is my house," said Morgan Mossett cautiously surfing the Web at her favorite cafe.
There's just certain things she won't do on a free Wi-Fi network. "Unless I'm on my own connection at home that's probably when I would do my banking, my bill pay and stuff like that," she said.
"Banking is probably the most secure thing you can do in a free Wi-Fi environment," said Russell Senior, President of Personal Telco, the non-profit operator of 100 free Wi-Fi spots across Portland.
He wants to dispel those banking fears "because banks are really concerned about not losing money and when there's fraud they lose money."
Senior said encryption has always been the key.
He said it’s important to look for the "s" after the "http" in a website address. Accompanied by a padlock icon in your browser's address window, this means a website is encrypted, much like using a spy language between the computer user and the website server.
But outside of those banking websites, Senior said "there are issues with, particularly, things like email or things sometimes like Facebook or Twitter when you log in if you're not using an encrypted connection into their server."
That vulnerability is one reason cyber crimes are the FBI'S third highest priority.
"Looking for terrorists, looking for spies and cyber crimes," said spokesperson Beth Anne Steele, listing those nationwide priorities.
She said federal agents are tracking down a growing number of hackers and password sniffers who have greater opportunities to strike because Internet devices and free access points are exploding in number.
On rare occasions, Steele said the bad guys get aggressive.
"If a hacker gets into your computer while you're online at a free Wi-Fi spot they very easily can upload a virus or a trojan into that computing device," Steele explained.
Senior believes the FBI's concerns are a bit overstated given the protective powers of encryption.
He says FBI surveillance and the financial success of paid Internet providers benefit from unwarranted free Wi-Fi fears.
Personal Telco says home Wi-Fi users should be just as wary as free Wi-Fi users out in the public domain.
Senior advised to make sure you use encrypted websites and, just as importantly, avoid using the same password for everything you do online.