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5 ways to avoid getting hacked when charging your phone at the airport

Nov. 18, 2019
4 min read
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These days, USB charging outlets are a crucial part of the modern traveler's routine. We look for them in hotels, Ubers, airport lounges, charging stations by the airport gate — in fact, TPG staffers are required to note the presence or absence of USB outlets on every flight we review.

But is there a hidden risk to these heaven-sent devices? Experts say yes. This week, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office issued a warning via Twitter, cautioning people against unethical hackers who can program USB charging outlets with malware targeting sensitive cell phone data, a move called "juice jacking."

"A free [phone] charge could end up draining your bank account,"" Deputy District Attorney Luke Sisak stated in a video embedded in the tweet.

According to Sisak, juice jacking can take several forms. The malware downloads itself onto the charging cell phone and can monitor the phone's usage in real time, transmit bank account passwords and private information elsewhere, lock the phone from a remote location, and sometimes even clone it, copying its entire data and identity, without the user even touching the cell phone.

This may be the first you're hearing of it, but juice jacking has been a risk for several years now now. And in case you don't think your cell phone has any incriminating data worth stealing, think again. Approximately 60 million U.S. smart phone users used some form of mobile payment on their devices in 2019, whether it's Apple Pay, Chase Pay, Google Pay, Samsung Pay or a similar platform.

Your phone also tracks the number of steps you take each day; stores all of your contacts, messages and emails; holds your complete travel itinerary; captures all of your photos and videos; and is equipped with GPS that broadcasts your exact location and activity in real time, all the time.

So what's a desperate traveler with a dying cell phone to do? Here are a few practical ways to get the juice you need without getting jacked along the way:

Bring your own AC adapter

That one tiny brick that comes with your cell phone and plugs into a standard 110v outlet is all you need to keep your data safe. You can also buy a heavy-duty one for powering multiple cables at once. Yes, it requires one extra step to pull out and fit onto your USB cable, but it's worth it. When traveling, keep all your chargers, cords and bricks in one place in your carry-on to make it easy to find what you need.

Carry a portable charger

These aren't just for music festivals and camping trips. Mophie, Anker, Jackery and a number of other reputable brands make portable batteries that range from the size of a tube of lipstick to bricks that can power several laptops for one to two full charges. (Some even come with bonus flashlights!) Yes, they are additional weight and hassle but again, protecting your data is worth it.

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Charge your phone from your laptop

If you can't find your AC adapter and don't have a portable battery, try plugging your USB cable into your own laptop. This isn't the best solution but will work just fine for you to get enough charge to hail an Uber or pull up your digital boarding pass.

Use a data blocker

This simple USB device does exactly what its name suggests, sitting between the charging outlet and your cell phone to prevent malware from sneaking through. It costs about $6 on Amazon, or you can buy a five-pack for your family for about $28.

If prompted, don't grant access to your cell phone

This may seem like a no-brainer, but never allow anyone or anything you don't trust to access your phone. Sometimes when you plug your phone into a public charging station, you'll see a pop-up that asks you if you'd like to trust the computer it's connected to. Always say no.

Image courtesy of Apple.