Officials warn travelers about safety risks of public charging stations

Juice-jacking is becoming a major issue at some airports

Staying connected is essential to travelers, especially during the hectic holiday travel season.

MIAMI – Staying connected is essential to travelers, especially during the hectic holiday travel season. More than 2 million people are expected to travel through South Florida airports over the Thanksgiving holiday.

Now more airports and commercial centers have offered charging stations or kiosks free to the public. But could that convenience come at a cost?

“It's an attack on phones that's been around for some time but it's becoming more prevalent”, explained Coral Gables based data privacy attorney Luis Salazar.

It’s called juice-jacking. The Los Angeles District Attorney’s office sent out a warning this month urging travelers to avoid public USB power charging stations because they could be hiding dangerous malware, infecting phones with a virus that can quickly access users’ sensitive personal information and passwords.

“So using these public devices creates a risk that your phone is going to be essentially hacked and your information may be lost”, Salazar told Local 10 investigative reporter Amy Viteri.

He explained the dangerous malware can be hidden within the charging station itself or on cables plugged into the device that can then access everything from emails to photos.

“The information is downloaded there's really no flag, no notification on your phone or your device that would tell you, ‘Hey a moment ago just downloaded your entire phone’”, Salazar said, adding there are two types of potential attacks. One in which malware actually damages or encrypts the phone so the user no longer has access to it. Alternatively criminals can use the open connection to download your information.

Local 10 News found several South Florida travelers using the public charging kiosks, but few were even aware of the risk.

“I know it's scary. It is. Didn't really think about it right here”, said airline passenger Mark Toppe. He said the warning made him think twice about plugging in just anywhere, but his wife admits sometimes staying connected is worth the risk.

“If my phone was dead and I wanted to talk to my kids I'd probably do it anyway”, Chata Toppe said.

One way to protect your privacy, according to experts is to use a USB data blocker that connects to a device and prevents unwanted information transfers.

Ultimately the more public the location, the more vulnerable it is to potential malware risks. Experts suggest people use their own cord and plug into an electrical outlet whenever possible.

More safeguards include adding a passcode and using fingerprint or facial recognition to protect devices as well as ensure phones are up to date with the latest security patches.

About the Author:

Amy Viteri is an Emmy Award-winning journalist who joined Local 10 News in September 2015. She's currently an investigative reporter and enjoys uncovering issues facing South Florida communities. A native of the Washington, D.C., area, she's happy to be back in South Florida, where she earned a masters degree at the University of Miami.