A quirk in an old version of Windows XP is mistakenly causing people to think they can access a free Wi-Fi network.
When searching for a Wi-Fi hot spot on a computer, "Free Public Wi-Fi" is often available in the list of networks. NPR reported, however, that the network is an "ad hoc" network, meaning the user is actually connecting to someone else's computer rather than a router or Wi-Fi hot spot.
According to NPR a computer running the old XP will create an ad hoc network with the same name as the last network it connected to when it can not find any of its usual wireless networks.
The "Free Public Wi-Fi" spread like a virus as other computer users within range saw that network and tried to log onto it.
Microsoft has created a fix with Windows XP Service Pack 3, but many users haven't updated their computers.
Wireless security expert Joshua Wright suggested to NPR that someone probably created the first "Free Public Wi-Fi" as a joke. The problem, Wright said, is it could provide hackers a chance to hack into someone's computer and destroy its hard drives.
This troublesome ad hoc network got the nickname "zombie" network, suggesting that the phenomenon spreads in a way similar to a how a zombie "spreads living death by biting people."
The Houston Chronicle reported on the problem in 2006 when blogger Dwight Silverman discovered it. He said the Windows icons are different as the regular access points show an antenna and the ad hoc networks show a symbol that appears like two notebook computers side by side.
"Generally, you want to avoid ad hoc networks in public places," he wrote. "At best, they're a radio signal to nowhere; at worst, they could be someone looking for a vulnerable PC to compromise."