This Viral Travel Advice Is Really Not A Great Idea, Experts Say

What seems like a great “life hack” might actually lead to you being hacked.
Cybersecurity experts, the FBI and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) say it's risky for travelers to use public USB ports to charge their cell phones.
Thomas Barwick via Getty Images
Cybersecurity experts, the FBI and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) say it's risky for travelers to use public USB ports to charge their cell phones.

At some point, pretty much everyone forgets their charger on a trip and finds themselves with a phone in the red. Or maybe you remembered all the cords —for your phone, watch, Kindle, etc. — but you don’t have enough charging blocks, which is a problem now that we have so many things to charge. A viral Instagram reel full of travel hacks suggests using a USB port on the back of a hotel room television to charge your phone — Travel + Leisure, Lifehacker and others agree — but cybersecurity experts, the FBI and the Federal Communications Commission aren’t so sure.

“There’s always going to be an element of risk in our day-to-day lives, and the goal of cybersecurity is risk mitigation,” said Monica Eaton, who deals with the financial consequences of scams and data theft as the founder of Chargebacks911, a company that helps consumers reverse charges to their debit or credit cards after fraud. “There might even be situations when it makes sense to expose yourself to increased risk because the benefits outweigh the potential harms.”

Charging your phone is an excellent example of this.

Phone chargers are an easy item to leave behind at home or in your previous hotel accidentally, so if the need to have your phone charged outweighs the risk of plugging into a public port, it might be worth it. Still, experts say you should consider other options, including shelling out the cash to pay for an overpriced charger from a newsstand or airport kiosk or buying a junky one from a gas station.

But if it’s late, you’re at your hotel, and you just realized you don’t have your charger, how bad is it really to use the one on the TV?

Why The USB Port On A Hotel Television Is A Bad Idea

“Any public device — whether it’s a computer in the hotel’s business center, a TV in the hotel room, a public charging station, a public WiFi network, a Roku box in an Airbnb, etc. — is potentially dangerous since it is publicly accessible and you don’t know how secure it is,” explained Chris Pierson, founder and CEO of BlackCloak, a digital executive protection company.

“While it may seem less risky to plug into the back of the TV in your hotel room, just remember that many other people may have done the same thing, which means they could have deliberately or unintentionally infected it with malware,” Pierson said.

“Additionally, if the TV connects to the hotel’s WiFi network, a remote hacker could potentially spread malware to it that way, too.”

The FBI told me they defer on the details of this issue to the FCC, which warns about “juice jacking” from public charging stations on its website. “Malware installed through a corrupted USB port can lock a device or export personal data and passwords directly to the perpetrator. Criminals can then use that information to access online accounts or sell it to other bad actors,” the FCC stated.

What seems like a great “life hack” might lead to you being hacked, and suddenly a drained cell phone battery won’t seem like a huge hassle compared to dealing with your compromised information.

“Bad actors have become adept at slipping their gadgets into public places —airports, airline lounges, hotel lobbies and rooms, and other public locations,” said Chris Hauk, consumer privacy advocate at Pixel Privacy. “By plugging into a compromised USB charging port, users are leaving their devices open to malware and spyware installations on their device.”

You Probably Shouldn’t Use Any Public USB Ports

“The problem is that it’s impossible to know whether a charging station is just charging your battery or trying to do other things until after you plug it in,” said Paul Bischoff, a privacy advocate at Comparitech.

“It’s probably best to avoid them altogether. But dedicated charging stations like the ones in airports and planes should be a little safer.”

Bischoff explained that the ports on airplanes are intended for public use and, therefore, should be secured and monitored by a professional IT team employed by the airport or airline, as opposed to an unmonitored hotel TV that just happens to have a USB port.

Steven J.J. Weisman, a lawyer, author, professor of white-collar crime at Bentley University, and an expert in scams, identity theft and cybersecurity, described plugging into a hotel television’s USB port as pretty low-risk, but he, too, warned against the public USB charging stations in airport, malls, concert venues, etc. In addition, Weisman pointed out that although most cell phone manufacturers have improved their phones’ security, consumers must always keep their software current.

If You See This Warning Sign, Unplug Your Phone Immediately

“If you use an iPhone and decide to use a public USB charger such as [those] found at airports and other sites, watch your screen when you plug in your phone because if the USB charger has been corrupted with malware, your phone will ask you if you want to trust the device,” Weisman explained.

“The answer to that question is a resounding NO. If that message appears when you plug in your device to the charger, you should immediately unplug your phone.”

Because of this, it makes sense to keep track of chargers the way you do medication or prescription eyeglasses — don’t forget them. Eaton suggested carrying a travel-safe backup battery pack for when you might have a charger but not a wall outlet to plug into.

Want to avoid all this? Get your own portable phone charger.

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A two-pack of chargers
Each of these compact and slim devices holds multiple charges for iPhones, Galaxy phones, Pixel phones and more. They each have two USB output ports and feature a grippy design that makes them easy to hold. These chargers have 4.6 out of 5 stars and 56,018 five-star ratings on Amazon.

Promising review: "I bought this 2 pack to replace my old power bank which was struggling to fully charge my phone more than once. I wasn't expecting too much cause these costed less per unit than other power banks with the same 10000mAh capacity, but I was pleasantly surprised after using them. Both colors look sleek and I can charge my phone up to 3 times from dead or critical battery when the power banks are fully charged." — Fernando Xavier Padilla
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This solar-powered charger is ideal for people who love going camping. Not only is it powered by the sun, but it's waterproof, shock-resistant and has an LED flashlight and a compass as well. This reliable, durable and easy-to-use charger is compatible with iPhone, Samsung, HTC, Nexus, Go-Pro cameras, tablets and other USB devices. It has 4.3 out of 5 stars and 5,883 five-star reviews.

Promising review: "We got three of these for camping. Charged them up via USB when they arrived. It's been 12 days, and we've charged our phones 5x off one of them, without having to recharge it at all, except for letting it sit out in a sunny window for a few hours each afternoon. Based on how many phone charges we got out of a single USB charge plus a little sunlight, I feel very happy with this product. They're pretty lightweight, the included carabiner makes it easy to hang from a backpack or in a window, and the included flashlight is a nice touch. I also appreciate dual USB ports, so you can charge two devices at once. My only tiny issue is that the power button for the flashlight feature is small and hard to distinguish from the rest of the colored bits on the edges of the charger. You sort of have to memorize where it is for quick access should you need a flashlight. Now that I know where the power button is, it's not an issue. Many of these solar chargers are WAY more expensive than this model. Why pay more when this one works so well? Glad I chose this brand and model. Superhappy with this purchase!" — Amazonmasterz
A high-speed charger that doubles as a flashlight
This ultra-thin power bank holds multiple charges and is compatible with a range of smartphones, tablets and other devices like AirPods, fitness trackers, smartwatches and headphones. It has 4.7 out of 5 stars and 12,351 five-star reviews on Amazon.

Promising review: "My family and I just went to Disney world for a week and this really helped all 3 of us keep our phones charges while we used them all day at the parks. I have an iPhone and my parents both have androids and it charged two phones at the same time without any issues. Also, I was able to fly with the charger which is great! I just didn’t pack it in my suitcase or use it on the plane. I like how the paw print on the front lights up blue to tell you how much of a charge you have left and I also like the book light that came with it but will probably never use it. We used the mesh bag it comes with to stack our two different charging cords then when we needed to charge we had everything we needed in the bag. If you’re on the fence, get it. It was worth it." — Kimberly
A charger with a smart LED display
This quick-charging device has insanely high charging capacity with the ability to hold more than eight charges for an iPhone 12, while the LED display screen makes it easy to know how much you've got left. It has 4.3 out of 5 stars and 8,011 five-star ratings.

Promising review: "Very handy. I bought this for my son who uses a tablet at school. He has special needs so he is unable to write. Having a low battery could derail him for the entire day. This is super easy to use and charges quickly. I'm also impressed with the size. Although it is heavier, it's actually smaller than my phone. I also appreciate that I can use it to charge my phone wirelessly." — Darling Nikki
An ultra-high capacity and super-fast phone charger
With the ability to charge two phones at once, this fast-acting charger will get you out of any pinch. It's compatible with a range of devices like an iPad, smartwatch, Airpods, Samsung Galaxy, most other smartphones, tablets and more. It can charge devices up to eight times, so you can go about your day with peace of mind. It has 4.5 out of 5 stars and 15,244 five-star ratings.

Promising review: "I dont write reviews much but, this needed to be said about this product. I have had it about a year now and goes everywhere with me. 2 weeks ago im charging my phone and bluetooth speaker while walking in the woods with my dog on our property, as i lift many 16ozer's During the day and night I dont realized that i misplaced it, until morning after a Long day of cold rain. Couldn't find it in camper so I assume i dropped in the woods. well 2 weeks later after many days of rain ice and snow, with temps between 29f and 40 f I was walking though woods again when my dog happened upon it, frozen but still able to produce 1 led light. brought in camper, warmed it up for a while and charged it up. i Can honestly say that it is charging my phone right now while righting this review. great product." — urbanmusher
A lightweight slim external charger
This wildly popular charger is incredibly slim and lightweight compared to other options and is compatible with most smartphones and devices. It has 4.6 out of 5 stars and a whopping 47,621 five-star reviews.

Promising review: "I like the solid and sleek construction. Fits easily in my pocket. Most importantly it works! Fast charging, enough capacity to charge my phone multiple times over multiple days, and withstands plenty of me dropping it and yanking the cord out awkwardly and accidentally. This is the 4th Anker charger I’ve owned. I share them with my family and use all 4." — Joe Hull

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A two-pack of chargers

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