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Accessing Financial Web Sites on a Public Connection

There’s no other major item most of us own that is as confusing, unpredictable and unreliable as our personal computers. Everybody has questions about them, and we aim to help.

Here are a few questions about computers I’ve received recently from people like you, and my answers. I have edited and restated the questions a bit, for readability. This week my mailbox contained questions about accessing financial sites on a nonsecure Internet connection, which cellphones with email capability to take abroad, and what to do about Web sites that don’t work well in Safari.

I am concerned about security on my laptop when traveling and using nonsecure Internet connections available at motels. Is there a way to be secure when accessing my financial Web sites while using a motel’s connection?

You can install a good firewall, and sweep your laptop with security software for spyware and other malicious software that might transmit passwords. And you can make sure you are using antiphishing software. Better yet, you could use a sort of private Internet tunnel, called a Virtual Private Network, or a remote control service, like GoToMyPC, so you are actually using your home PC — remotely — to contact the Web sites involved.

But, the bottom line is that, unless you are on a network that you can control and secure, such as a home or office network, I wouldn’t advise accessing financial accounts online, or performing financial transactions. I wouldn’t trust sensitive online transactions to any public Internet connection, such as those at motels. There are too many people, including other guests, the motel staff, and the people at the company that provides the motel’s Internet service, who could potentially be watching what you are doing.

Is there a cellular phone that can be taken abroad that has a good email capability, for a comfortable price?

That depends on what you’d consider “good” email capability, or what price would be “comfortable” for you. It also depends on what countries you’re heading for. But, in general, any BlackBerry or Treo that works with the AT&T (formerly Cingular) or T-Mobile networks here in the U.S. will work in Europe and in many other regions. And both have what I consider good email capabilities for the price, which can vary, depending on model, and be as low as $99.

In general we love our new MacBook laptop, but there is one thing we’re not sure how to work around. We find that there are some Web sites that don’t seem to work well with the built-in Safari browser, and on some sites, we are unable to play a video. Is there a solution?

Yes. For the Web pages that don’t work well with Safari, you can download and use as an alternative the Firefox browser, which comes in a Mac version that is essentially identical to its Windows version. You can get Firefox, which is free, at mozilla.com.

The videos that won’t play were likely produced in the latest version of Microsoft’s Windows Media format. Microsoft offers free software that allows these videos to play on a Mac. It’s called Flip4Mac and can be downloaded at: www.microsoft.com/windows/windowsmedia/player/wmcomponents.mspx.

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Because of the volume of email I receive, I can’t routinely answer individual questions by email, or consult on individual problems or purchasing decisions. I read all questions I receive and select three each week to answer in the column.

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at mossberg@wsj.com

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