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How Do You Stop Others From Using Your Wireless Internet?

By Kevin M

A few months ago a friend of mine was tooling around on our home computers and made a discovery that stunned me.

“Someone else is using your connection” he said, almost casually.

I of course, was anything but casual at the news. “Who would be doing that?” I asked, trying to sound intelligent, but failing miserably.

“Just about anybody with a laptop computer within a couple hundred feet of the house” he answered. “Someone with a laptop in their car parked on the street near the house could do it.”

Have you ever heard news that was so shocking that logic failed you? This was one of those moments for me. I couldn’t think of a series of questions that would glean the information that would put my mind at ease. The implications of what had been revealed that day were so far reaching that I did what humans have been doing for thousands of years upon hearing disturbing news: I put it out of my mind.

Now if you’ve ever read any of my previous posts, you know that I’m a self declared techno-idiot, and I’m not joking about that. The average high school student knows more about computer related matters than I do, so if I make any comments that seem ridiculous, or pose questions where the answer is obvious, just consider the source!

The offending piece of equipment

A couple of years ago my wife and I were looking to provide our kids with their own computer, and their own internet connection. After checking with our ISP provider we decided against the high cost of adding a second internet line to the house. They would charge over $200 to install the new line, then bump our monthly internet bill by something on the order of $30 per month. That wasn’t happening.

On the advice of my boss, we added a router to our computer and ran a line to the kids machine and hooked them in that way. The unit, a Linksys Wireless-G Broadband Router, works beautifully, only cost about $50 and carries no recurring charges—problem solved, money saved!

Now the operative word in the name of the router is “Wireless” but remember, I’m a techno-idiot so I assumed this to be a superfluous descriptive word, in much the same way that sports cars carry certain random letters like Z or G in the model name. The router had wires—several of them in fact—coming out in all directions, so there was no way that it could in fact be wireless. Are you following my logic?

What I’m hoping to find out

Since I’d put the whole strangers-tapping-into-our-internet-line so far out of my mind that I’d virtually forgotten about it, I was surprised that my daughter got an instant internet connection.

Then it hit me…

Ah yes, THAT’S what WIRELESS means! She can tap into the connection anywhere in the house. Then it hit me, again. So can anyone else!

I’m familiar with Wi-Fi connections in public places like restaurants and coffee shops, but I never realized we have the equivalent at home. I thought that was some sort of add-on service or gadget you had to pay extra for.

But here we are at home, and anyone with a laptop within a reasonable distance of our house can hook up to our internet line for free!

Here are my questions:

  1. Can outsiders pirate our files and information?
  2. Does it figure into our band usage (some ISP’s will charge extra if the usage gets too high)
  3. Can they see what I’m looking at?
  4. Can I see what they’re looking at?
  5. Is there a potential for blended connections, or something like telephone “party lines”?
  6. Can outsider usage impair our connection in any way?
  7. How do you stop it?
  8. Do we even want to stop it?
  9. Is there a way to prevent outsiders from using the connection without interfering with our own laptops and desktops?
  10. Is this even a problem???

I’m open to what ever advice anyone can offer!

( Photo courtesy of dana 2 )


18 Responses to How Do You Stop Others From Using Your Wireless Internet?

  1. thebananarepublican says:

    Hey Kevin! Yes, an unencrypted network is open to anyone within reach. This is fine if the user just wants an internet connection. I use them when necessary and available, but I only use them to do on my computer what I would do with my own internet access. Catch my drift? There are those who will use this opening to get into your computer(s) and do as they will. I definitely would like to help you secure your network. If you want, you may email me at the address submitted to leave a comment. We can try to set up a time where I can talk you through what you need to do. If you would, in the email let me know what operating system(s) you are running. This will help me know what to expect when we speak. Also, is your modem a Linksys, too? What type of broadband connection do you have (cable, dsl)?

    I’m happy to do all I can to help you.

    Shalom [+]
    thebananarepublican

  2. Chris @ FeFi blog says:

    As the go-to tech guy for my family (and many co-workers), I’ve seen the same type of head-scratching reaction that you (Kevin) had up close and personal. I would, indeed set up some sort of security for your wireless.

    Depending on how malicious a person wants to be, they could be using it for something as innocuous as checking Facebook or…downloading p0rn torrents. Either way, it sucks up your bandwith and makes you ask, “Hey, why is my blog loading so slow?”

    Here’s an article with a fairly good step-by-step, if you prefer to DIY:
    http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/secure-your-wireless-network-here-is-why-and-how/

    Otherwise, maybe you could bribe one of those tech-savvy high school kids to do it for some pizza money. ;)

  3. Jason says:

    Get a hold of a tech head, & have him/her enable the WPA or WPA 2 security function in your router (or walk you through it.) Use a really difficult password, like so… w3p7C7yL7

    And bob’s your uncle! This will keep most casual interlopers off your connection. (unless you happen to have a bored teen with time on his hands trying to hack in)

    Ref to point 10 — of course this is a problem! Not to mention the charges you pay! In India, where I live, one of the latest attacks was planned by terrorists using unsuspecting peoples’ open WiFi connections!

    Cheers,
    Jason

  4. Kevin M says:

    thebananarepublican – not to get off topic, but what’s the meaning of “thebananarepublican”???

    Chris – Excellent suggestions, I’ll check out that website.

    Jason – based on what you’re saying, this is potentially the problem I thought it might be. Who is Uncle Bob???

  5. Good questions and scary thoughts – you can definitely encrypt it with passwords so keep others off, but yeah you probably want to be careful using it.

  6. Peter says:

    You’d be amazed at how many open wireless connections there are out there for people to just use as they would like. I remember just driving around my neighborhood with my Ipod touch looking for open connections out of curiousity one day, and probably found 8-9 of them in my small neighborhood alone.

    For a while when we moved into our house and we didn’t have internet I was able to use our next door neighbor’s open wireless internet – with his permission of course. If someone wanted to do some pretty bad behaviors with your open connection, they probably could, so you’ll probably want to start password protecting your wireless.

  7. Kevin M says:

    Jason – those were the thoughts the writing of this post! I may not know what all of this means, but that little voice inside tells you when something doesn’t seem right.

    Peter – So true, we often don’t realize that the wonderful benefit of accessing other peoples wireless connections is a double edged sword that can work against us. I love the convenience of using WiFi in a public place, but the idea that some else is tapping into mine is unsettling. That bandwidth usage thing can cost money, and that’s probably the least of it.

  8. Kyle C. says:

    Yes on all accounts. If you have an open unecrypted wireless router I/someone else can connect to your network, access your computers, your files, watch where you go on the internet, intercept all of your communications and host what ever I want on your network. The kicker is you are responsible for it, if someone decides to start hosting kiddie porn on your open wifi network the feds are coming to your door, not theirs. You should ensure you network is at the least encrypted using WPA encryption, preferably wpa2. WEP is the same as not securing your network at all. Anyone with a laptop can crack WEP easily and swiftly.

    The argument that your websites are encrypted doesn’t work either because the user can hijack your router and make himself an intermediary between say you an your bank. You wouldn’t know the difference and he would be getting access to all of your information. Hackers can use these connections as well to perform attacks on other networks and corporations but when the company comes looking for the culprit they will come to you.

    Turn it off or lock it down, it isn’t worth the risks. Feel free to shoot me an e-mail if you want more information or help getting it setup.

  9. OK, now I’m scared! Email to follow.

    Where do you get WPA/WPA2???

  10. Len Penzo says:

    You can check your wireless router to see if it offers WPA or WPA2. By the way, make sure you use a GOOD password. My computer recognizes about a dozen wireless routers and all but one of them are encrypted. It just so happens that I knew who had the unencrypted router based upon the name they gave it. Just for grins, one day I decided to see if I could guess their password. For my first attempt I decided to try the name of their daughter, who had a rather unique name. Bingo – I was in! (And yes, I immediately notified them of their lax security.)

    All the best,

    Len
    Len Penzo dot Com

  11. Thanks Len, that sounds like a good place to start. The customer service at Linksys has been excellent so for.

    Were I not a techno idiot, I might have thought that up for myself! ;-)

  12. Great Questions Kevin,
    I have to say it shocks me when i lookup my list of available connections in the house and i see more than fifteen available and half of them are wide open!

    While most people who leave their wireless open are just innocent and ignorant.. there are some ‘bad’ people leave their wireless open to lure other innocent neighbors to connect to their network and once you are connected to their network they will try to read the ‘packets’/information you are transimitting through their network..BEWARE!

    On top of using an encryption – disable SSID broadcast on you router so that people will not see your wireless on the list of available connections(linksys and most other routers have this capability).

  13. Kevin M says:

    Wow, that’s a another good one Joseph. I’ll look in the Linksys literature and failing that I’ll call customer service. I have to call them for the WPA/WPA2.

    Am I the only one who doesn’t know about any of this???

  14. Ili says:

    Hi there..

    I’ve been experiencing this in my small office for thsi couple of days. I’m using D-Link wireless ADSL router. Since 2 days ago i’ve been seeing anynomous pc in my network. I thought I’ve made the network private, but somehow this 1 person keep on appearing in my network? anyone knows how to solve this..pls help.

  15. CathT says:

    hmmm glad am not alone….. I have got my PC all set up with WAP2 etc and when I turned on my work lap top for the first time, it clocked straightonto my wireless without asking a password etc etc – hi thought it as all secured up… any advice on how to set this up? I live in the country , but am right opposite a big caravan park and am sure most people being their laptops!!! thanks in advance.

  16. Kevin M says:

    CathT – Being the one with most of the questions, I’m certainly not qualified to give you an answer. Any takers out there?

  17. Aury (Thunderdrake) says:

    Hehehehe. Since overcoming that little wireless hopping problem, seems like it injected a little bit of paranoia fuel into you there… Totally justified, there.

    I’ll admit I’m not very sophisticated with the matter, either. I also have a wireless connection too. So I password locked it, being in doubt.

  18. Kevin M says:

    Update – Turns out I do have a WPA/WPA2 password protected access, so no problem. If you can access your wireless without a passcode, one of two situations may exist:

    1) The password is saved in your laptop and you access the connection automatically, or

    2) Your connection isn’t password connected, in which case you need to contact the company who manufactured your wireless router to have it established.

    If an access code isn’t part of your wireless system, you probably need to get a new one, otherwise your computer line is available for others to use–or misuse–or to access your information.

    THANKS to all who have offered advice on this thread, I used it all to get my issue straightened out!

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