What to do if...someone's stealing your Wi-Fi

Protect your connection, and your online baking info, from freeloaders.

How can you tell?

Check your wireless router, which, depending on the manufacturer, should have a green light labeled WLAN or WIFI. “Shut off all your computers,” recommends Chris Novak, a representative from the Investigative Response Unit of Verizon Business. “If the light’s still blinking,” you’ve got a leech.

Why should you care?

“Think of your wireless connection as your own private highway,” explains Novak. “The more people on the road, the slower the traffic.” That means your download of the latest Gossip Girl episode could be sluggish. As for the chance that an infiltrator might snag your online banking info: “It depends on their skill set,” says a spokesperson (who asked that his name not be used) for the nonprofit Wi-Fi Alliance, which aims to create a universal wireless standard. “The average person couldn’t do it, but if you leave your connection open”—i.e., without a password—“you’re at risk.”

How do you protect yourself?

You can use encryption to keep data private so people can’t see it; most routers do this when you set up security precautions. But it’s the password (also called a key or pass phrase) that prevents piggybackers from getting on your network without permission. You can configure your router to require this password, and keep in mind that of the different types (WEP, WPA, WPA2), WPA2 is considered the most secure. Check the router’s wireless security configuration and owner’s manual for how to do it.

What are the repercussions?

Novak warns that Internet service providers can track illegal activity on your connection—and ultimately the government could fine you for your neighbor’s endless torrent of illegal downloads. Additionally, “most ISPs have you agree not to allow access in their terms of service. They want everyone to pay and could lodge civil penalties.”

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