GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. -- In a world that is constantly connected, it seems these days you are never alone, whether you know it or not.
"People are online around the clock," said computer expert Jake DeWoskin. DeWoskin is with the Twin Cities business consulting firm KDV.
He agreed to be our 'bad guy' in an experiment to show how easy it is to hack into someone's computer using public Wi-Fi. "Wireless is fairly secure if you use it properly," said DeWoskin.
But on this day, we plan on using it like many people do improperly. For those who look at a computer and scratch their heads, Wi-Fi essentially enables you to surf the internet with your laptop, phone, or tablet.
Now back to that experiment we told you about, my computer and I served as the guinea pig with the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport serving as the backdrop and DeWoskin as the would-be crook.
"What I'm doing is far from harmless," he said.
What he did was set the hotspot up on his phone, which then connects traffic to his computer. He labeled it 'Free Wi-Fi'.
Within minutes, several people in the airport clicked on it, thinking it was safe. It must be, right? We're in an airport.
If Jake wanted to, he could hack into their computers. But he's not after them, he's after me. He's using legitimate tools he utilizes everyday when diagnosing problems on his clients' computers.
"Okay, I found you," he said with a smile. "I am now tracking what you do online." It took him exactly sixteen seconds to do so.
He's not seeing exactly what I see, but rather data that any skilled computer geek can interpret and then manipulate.
But there were red flags. My computer threw up a security certificate warning on the top of my screen informing me I was about to click on something that wasn't entirely safe.
Under the direction of DeWoskin, I clicked okay and moved on, something he says a lot of people do, including his clients who come to him for help after they've been hacked.
"More often than not, and I do it myself sometimes, you're in a hurry you got to get something done, you just want to check one email. You're going to blow by that certificate warning," he said.
After browsing FaceBook, I decided to pay some credit card bills online. I know, I must really trust him.
Again, I ignored pop-up warnings. And within 30 seconds, he saw what I've guarded for years, my username and password along with the web address.
Many thieves will even identify their hotspot as the real deal, naming it a legitimate company intending to get in and out of your computer quickly.
And once they have a username and password, their work is done. "Statistically everyone uses the same username and the same password for 80 to 90 percent of what they do online," he said.
And with that information, it's a lot easier to find a lot more damaging stuff like bank accounts and social security numbers.
"I would lay odds that there is somebody in the airport right now using this type or similar technology to try to collect information about people in this airport," he said.
But this isn't just an airport thing, this is an everywhere thing. Any place that has public Wi-Fi may also have a hot spot hacker trolling for your personal information.
And it's up to you to make sure you're clicking on the legitimate Wi-Fi hotspot, rather than the fake one.
We went to two coffee shops in St. Paul where we met Lisa Richards and Andrea Stanger.
Both knew what we were doing and so we asked them to click on our fake Wi-Fi hotspot.
What they didn't know was the guy pulling the strings was sitting right next to them.
"I would probably never even think of that," said Richards.
Like he did with me, Jake was able to find valuable usernames and passwords.
"I probably want to learn more about how to protect myself," said Stanger.
But protecting yourself is pretty simple.
First, make sure your firewall is turned on and your virus protection is up to date.
Second, if the Wi-Fi hotspot indicates a computer-to-computer connection rather than a direct connection to a network, don't click on it.
Third, and the most obvious, don't ignore warning certificates that pop-up on your computer.
And finally, if it's a free Wi-Fi hot spot, which the Minneapolis airport does not offer by the way, ask the business you're in a few simple questions. "Are you offering free Wi-Fi, what is the Wi-Fi name and what is the password," said DeWoskin.
But know, even with a password you should be very cautious when using public Wi-Fi.
"As an IT professional, the ease with which I was able to obtain that information, not just from you, but other testings that we've done. It's a little frightening," he said.
He says it's frightening in part because anyone can find out how to do this by searching the internet. DeWoskin says he actually learned how by watching a video the night before our interview.
"Chances are you can set up this tool in a few hours and start hacking," he said.
Which means, the guy next to you in the coffee shop may not just be typing in his information, but looking for yours.
"Vigilance is paramount here," he added.
(Copyright 2012 by KARE. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)