We’ve all been there. You have 20 minutes until your plane boards, and your phone is at 2 percent. Since your boarding pass is on your phone, you can’t let it die, so you plug it into the closest outlet to your gate. There’s no doubt that the proliferation of public USB charging ports at airports—as well as at airplane seats and near hotel beds—has made traveling with gadgets easier. But did you know that using them could allow others to steal personal data off your phone?
On April 6, 2023, the FBI Denver tweeted an alert that warned people not to use public USB chargers in airports, hotels, or shopping centers. “Bad actors have figured out ways to use public USB ports to introduce malware and monitoring software onto devices,” it warned. “Carry your own charger and USB cord and use an electrical outlet instead.”
“Juice jacking,” as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) calls it, is a scam in which criminals load malware directly into charging stations or into cables they leave plugged into public stations in order to infect electronic devices. The malware can then export data—including passwords and other private information—to the criminal who installed it.
Because it’s always better to be safe than sorry, you should stop using public USB chargers at airports and hotels in the future. If you can’t do that, follow these tips for keeping your travel gadgets safe while traveling.
How to avoid juice jacking
The simplest way to avoid the possibility of having your devices infected with malware via juice jacking is to bring your own charging cables with you and always use an AC power outlet instead of a USB charging station in public spaces. Since AC power outlets are rarely open at airports and not available on all airlines, you’ll also want to bring your own portable charger with you.
If you’d rather avoid carrying a portable charger or bulky AC plug-in charger, there’s another device called a USB data blocker—also known (unfortunately) as a “USB condom”—that connects directly to your USB plug and weighs less than an ounce.
Where to buy a USB data blocker
Buy now: PortaPow USB Data Blocker, $12 for two, amazon.com
Several companies make USB data blockers, but the one by PortaPow gets consistently the best reviews online. The PortaPow USB Data Blocker is available via Amazon for just $12 for two, which brings the price down to $6 each. PortaPow also makes a USB-A to USB-C version and a USB-C to USB-C version for $7 each if you need to connect to a device with a newer socket.
How does a USB data blocker work?
A USB data blocker looks similar to a regular USB charger, but it has two data wires physically removed from its connector so that your device can be charged but won’t transfer any data. By slipping a USB data blocker over the tip of your USB charger, you will physically block data transferring and syncing between your device and the charging port.
The PortaPow SmartCharge chip is universal and capable of working on all devices, including Apple and Samsung phones. At just 18 x 11 millimeters, it’s about the same size as a charging cable’s USB connector so that it won’t block other sockets or take up space in your carry-on.
Other benefits of using a USB data blocker
One reviewer on Amazon pointed out that, in addition to blocking viruses and unwanted data transfers, the gadget is essential for charging and reading your Kindle at the same time on an airplane.
“The USB ports on many airplanes provide power, but they’re also data ports (the thinking, I guess, is that you can plug in a USB stick full of music and listen to it),” the reviewer wrote. “If you plug in a Kindle, though, it immediately goes into I-am-a-remote-disk mode, as if you’d plugged it into your computer. You can’t read on the device when it’s acting like a disk, however. So, if you want to charge your Kindle on the plane and read at the same time, this device is essential.”
It’s also great for cars because it allows you to charge your phone but not take over the Bluetooth capabilities.
“My Ford blocks Bluetooth when anything is connected via cable,” someone wrote in their Amazon review of the PortaPow 3rd Gen USB Data Blocker. “This solves the issue of allowing a phone to charge without the car knowing it’s there. My wife can charge her phone while I have my phone Bluetooth connected to the car. Without it, the car assumes you only want to use the device plugged in.”
So what are you waiting for?
This article was originally published in 2019; it was updated on April 13, 2023, with new information.
Lyndsey Matthews Lyndsey Matthews is the senior commerce editor at AFAR who covers travel gear, packing advice, and points and loyalty.