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.