Who's Stealing Your Wireless Signal

Sure that wireless signal is great for connecting all the Web-enabled devices in your home, but do you know who's really using it? If you live in a house in the middle of nowhere, you're probably the only one using your wireless router. If you live in an urban area, an apartment building or in any home with a street out front, people could be stealing your wireless signal.

Who Steals Wireless?
Some wireless thieves are simply opportunists. Your next-door neighbor turns on a laptop and finds your unsecured wireless network. She starts sending e-mail and visiting her favorite Web sites. Why pay for her own connection when she's got yours for free? If you live near a coffee shop or restaurant, people could be borrowing your wireless, thinking that it's free.

Users like this generally don't pose a threat to your data, but their online meanderings could leave you with malware and viruses on your network. If your Internet provider caps your monthly data use, you'll wind up paying for all that extra Web browsing and e-mail.

The second type of wireless thief is far more malicious. This is the person who actively looks for unsecured wireless networks, then uses them to upload viruses, download illegal content or steal your personal information. If the freeloading neighbors are ants at a picnic, these people are the wasps, and you're allergic. Once somebody has access to your wireless network, they have access to all the computers on it. A motivated hacker can quickly figure out your passwords and start stealing personal information that can be used for identity theft.

Securing Your Network
The first rule to remember is that your wireless signal doesn't end at your door. Depending on the type of router you have, your wireless signal could be available up to 300 feet away from your home. If you live in an apartment or condominium, assume that everyone in the building has access to your network. Keeping unauthorized users out needs to be your first priority.

Fortunately, your wireless router has built-in security features to keep dangerous users away. These features only work if you use them properly, so follow these tips whenever you install a new router, and check them off for an existing installation:

  • Change the default settings. Every router has factory-set passwords as part of the default security settings. Guess what? Hackers know these default passwords. The first step in wireless network security should be changing the passwords.
  • Change the router's SSID. An SSID, or Service Set Identifier, is the name given to a network. It's like the name of your home town, a common reference that all the devices on a network use to know where they are. Most routers have a default network name set at the factory. Change it when you change the default passwords; hackers see default SSID names as a sign of poor network security.
  • Turn off SSID Broadcasting. Some networks report their availability over the air every few seconds. This is great for businesses and libraries that offer wireless networking, because it alerts your computer to the presence of the network. At home, you don't need it. You know the network is there. Broadcasting the SSID is telling everyone nearby that it's there, and you don't want everyone knowing that.
  • Use MAC address filtering. This is a security option that too many home users overlook because it's time-consuming to set up, but it's also one of the strongest security measures available. Every electronic device has a unique MAC address that acts as a personal fingerprint. When this filtering is turned on, you supply the MAC addresses for the computers, printers, video game systems, etc. that are allowed to connect to your network. All other devices will be locked out. Think of it as a VIP list for a private party.
  • Use Static IP Addresses. By default, wireless routers are set to use dynamic IP addresses, or DHCP. This makes it easier for devices to connect to your network when you turn them on, but it also enables anyone who can figure out your DHCP range to get into your network. It's better to assign a static IP address to every device that you want to connect. Working together with MAC address filtering, this will keep unauthorized users off your network.
  • Enable encryption. WAP and WEP are the two most common forms of encryption used in home routers. These tools scramble the data traveling across the network, allowing it to be read only by devices that have the encryption key. Remember that every time you use your wireless network, your data is sent as a radio signal. A hacker with the right tools can intercept that signal and steal your personal information without ever logging on to your network. Encryption prevents your data from being read, even if someone is intercepting your signals.
  • Monitor your network. Wireless routers can be set up to alert you every time a device tries to connect to your network. Enable this feature and keep it active, so that you'll know if unauthorized users are trying to get in.
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