A sign advertises Wi-Fi service in the Times Square Subway station in New York, April 25, 2013. (REUTERS/Brendan McDermid)
People love to mooch Wi-Fi. They don’t mean any harm. They just find an unprotected signal and sign on. Why not? It’s free, and nobody will even know. Your neighbor won’t mind if you steal a little broadband to watch Netflix, right?
But criminals also love unsecured Wi-Fi, and they do mean harm. They use your network to attack your gadgets and steal your personal information. They download illegal files through your router, making you vulnerable to a police investigation. To add insult to injury, intruders slow down your connection, causing buffering and making it harder for you to finish online tasks.
Still, it may not be mooches causing a pokey connection. Click here for three router tweaks to speed up your Wi-Fi.
“Wardriving” has been going on for years. Hackers drive around hunting for an unprotected Wi-Fi network they can exploit. How do you protect against such random attacks?
Here are a few tips for securing your Wi-Fi router against unauthorized hitchhikers.
Check for connected gadgets
Time to look at your network. First, you’ll want to log in to your router’s administration console. Basically, you are “logging in” to your router, the same way you’d log in to any computer. Every router has a different way of doing this, so check your manual for specific instructions.
(If you don't have your manual anymore, check the manufacturer's site. Or tap here to visit a fantastic site that has thousands of manuals for anything under the sun, including routers.)
Make sure your device is connected to your router wirelessly or by cable. Open a browser and type in the router's IP address, a set of numbers whose default depends on the router's manufacturer. The common IP addresses are 192.168.1.1, 192.168.0.1 or 192.168.2.1.
Check the DHCP Client List or Attached Devices section that shows what gadgets are connected to your router. Typically, they are listed by IP address, MAC address and/or Name. Once you’ve surveyed this list of connected gadgets, figure out which ones belong to you. You should recognize the name of your main computer, and your tablet or smartphone should have the name of the manufacturer or model.
If you can't make sense of the list or you can’t identify certain devices, simply turn off each gadget one by one. You can also disable each gadget's Wi-Fi. For tracking purposes, jot these network details down or take a quick pic using your smartphone so you can reference them later. If you’ve switched everything off and still see unknown gadgets, you know you have a culprit.
Now, there’s a much simpler way: You can use the aptly named Wireless Network Watcher, a free program that gives you a list of gadgets connected to your Wi-Fi network. You can quickly fire it up whenever you want to check or just leave it open for real-time monitoring. Easy.
Encrypt your connection
You may find intruders, or you may not. Either way, you can protect your Wi-Fi connection (and your personal data) by encrypting your connection.
Every router on the market offers several encryption options. One type to avoid is “WEP,” which is outdated and easy to circumvent. Instead, look for any encryption that starts with “WPA2,” the most recent being “WPA2-PSK AES.” The WPA2 family of encryption should protect your router from any run-of-the-mill hacker. Click here for more detailed instructions for securing your Wi-Fi against intruders.
It’s possible that your network is already encrypted, yet outsiders are still accessing your Wi-Fi. If so, change your password immediately. You can also reset your router to factory settings (consult your manual) and set up your Wi-Fi signal from scratch.
This will mean changing the default password, enabling encryption, picking a new network name (SSID) and turning off any remote management features. Just remember, if you change your encryption password, you’ll have to update the password on all your devices as well.
Even WPA2 encryption isn’t perfect. Cybersecurity experts recently discovered a massive Wi-Fi hack called KRACK. Click here to learn how to protect your network from this new attack.
Fence out your guest network
Friends and family always want to use your Wi-Fi. They ask politely, phone in hand because they hate to burn up their data plans when they can just use your connection. Instead of handing them your real password, use your router’s “Guest Network.”
This feature lets you share your internet connection with your guests while keeping them off your main network, preventing them from seeing your shared files and services. To avoid confusion with your main network, set up your guest network with a different SSID and password.
Although the guest network is available to guests, maintain the same level of security as your primary network. This means developing a strong password and restricting access to your shared files and devices. Make sure that “local access” is set to “off,” which will prevent guests from tampering with your system.
Want a really cool tip? You don’t have to give out your passwords at all. Here’s a way that you can share your network's password using a QR code.
Turn off remote administration
“Remote administration” is a feature that allows you to log in to your router and manage it over the internet. If you’ve ever called tech support, you may have experienced something similar: A faraway technician speaks with you on the phone and operates your computer as if he’s sitting right next to you.
Remote administration is a handy tool, especially when you need to fix a problem, but it leaves your computer vulnerable to hackers. Unless you absolutely need it, turn this feature off. You can find it under your router settings, usually under the “Remote Administration” heading. You can always switch it on again if the need arises. The last thing you need is to invite strangers on to your home network.
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Learn about all the latest technology on the Kim Komando Show, the nation's largest weekend radio talk show. Kim takes calls and dispenses advice on today's digital lifestyle, from smartphones and tablets to online privacy and data hacks. For her daily tips, free newsletters and more, visit her website at Komando.com.