Avoid These Five WiFi Security Mistakes

Category: Security , Wireless

WiFi networking is convenient and liberating, and essential if you have a laptop or tablet. But if you aren’t careful, using wireless Internet can leave you open to hackers and unauthorized moochers of your Internet service. Here are five of the biggest mistakes that people make with WiFi, and how to avoid them. Read on!

Is Your WiFi Wide Open?

Several years ago, I got Verison's FIOS high-speed Internet service at my home. And then something curious happened. Cars were stopping in front my house, and staying for 10 or 20 minutes. There's no reason for anyone to stop there, so my spider sense began to tingle. After checking my wireless router, I found that Verizon had left it wide open. Without a wifi password, anyone could connect! I locked down the router's wifi signal with a password, and the daily stream of cars stopped.

MISTAKE #1: Failing to put a password (also called an encryption key) on your WiFi lets anyone within range of your wireless router join your network. If file and printer sharing are also enabled, random passersby may be able to sift through files on every computer on your home or office network. Unencrypted WiFi also allows eavesdropping on your Internet traffic, even if the snoop is not connected to your network. Data passing between a computer and a wireless router is broadcast in all directions as far as several hundred feet.

Wifi Security Mistakes

Moochers on unsecured WiFi networks may slow the traffic of authorized users, or even download illegally while leaving the network’s owner with the legal consequences. For these reasons, it’s vital to set up your wireless network to use one of the encryption methods built into all wireless routers.

MISTAKE #2: While you're locking down your wifi signal, don’t make the mistake of choosing WEP encryption, the oldest and weakest encryption method. It can be cracked in about two minutes using software easily found online. Unfortunately, WEP is often the first option on a router’s list of available encryption methods, so don’t be lazy and choose it for that reason. Use WPA2 encryption with the Personal (PSK) option, for the best protection.

(See my related article Is Your Wireless Router REALLY Secure? to learn how a couple in Minnesota almost got framed for harassment, trafficking in child porn, and threatening the Vice President -- all because they used WEP encryption on their wireless router.)

MISTAKE #3: Weak encryption keys (passwords) are a related mistake. Strong encryption is of no use if a hacker can obtain your password by brute force attempts or by guessing it. Some wireless routers come with a default (factory set) password like "admin" or "password". And sometimes, internet service providers will set your wifi password to your home phone number. Passwords like these are trivial for even the most clueless hackers to guess. It's also common for the router's login credentials and/or wifi password to be listed on a sticker applied to your router.

Let me clear up a common point of confusion here. Your internet router has a username and password that you'll need if you want to login and change any settings. One of those settings is the wifi password. So there are TWO passwords being discussed here, and both are important. Your Internet Service Provider should have given you the router's username and password, if they supplied the router. Otherwise, look for it in the manual that came with your router.

Strong passwords should be at least 12 characters long and include a mixture of upper/lower case letters, digits, and special characters. For example, the password "M@ry Had a L1ttl3 L4mb" is a much better choice than "123456" or "qwerty". You needn't worry about entering this password over and over. Typically, you'll only need the wifi password when setting up a new device such as a laptop, tablet, smartphone, or wireless printer. (See Hey, Is This Your Password? to find out if your password is one of the 25 most common and easily guessed.)

MISTAKE #4: Disabling the firewall built into most modern routers in hope of getting faster Internet is a fourth mistake. Firewalls keep unauthorized outsiders from getting into your network. They do not appreciably slow your Internet connection. Do not disable your router’s firewall. (See Do I Really Need a Firewall? to learn more about firewalls.)

MISTAKE #5: Relying on stealth alone to escape hackers’ attention is a mistake that some people make. Some people think that they can get away without encryption or a password on their wifi, just by hiding their wifi router's SSID. Yes, most routers have a setting to disable the broadcasting of the router’s SSID (name) so that other WiFi users within range won’t “see” it on the list of available wireless connections.

Disabling the SSID isn't a bad idea. It will make your wifi signal invisible to most casual passers-by. But the SSID is included with many kinds of Internet traffic, so a hacker with free "sniffer" software can intercept and discover your router’s SSID. Similarly, using MAC address filtering to allow only specific devices to connect to your network isn't a reliable method either. MAC addresses are easily spoofed and, like SSIDs, are embedded in Internet traffic that can be intercepted. MAC address filtering is a good supplementary security precaution, but do not rely on it alone.

BONUS: If you have a router that has the WPS (Wifi Protected Setup) feature, your router may be vulnerable to unauthorized users. See my related article WPS Security Flaw: Are You Vulnerable? to see if you are affected, and how to fix the problem if necessary.

If you want some additional tips on wireless security, or information about how to login to your router to change security settings, see my Wireless Network Security Checklist.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome! Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Avoid These Five WiFi Security Mistakes"

Posted by:

Michael Meder
19 Nov 2013

Bob: Another important thing I do to keep my Wifi private is to make the MAC Address Filter List an INCLUSION list. On my router's "Wireless MAC Filter" page, I "Enable" the "Wireless MAC Filter", and set it for "Permit only", which means "Permit only PCs listed to access the wireless network". Not just PCs, but all devices with MAC IDs. If you have a new device, the administrator of the router (me) has to add your device's MAC ID to the approved list, or else, nothing happens.

Posted by:

20 Nov 2013

Amen, Michael Meder!!! The MA Address Filter List, is one of the best ways to "protect" your Wi-Fi. However, you first MUST have an excellent password, for your "WPA2 encryption with the Personal (PSK) option, for the best protection." (Quoting Bob)

This is so true and it can NOT be stressed enough!!! I got "hacked" and only thank the stars above, that I was not compromised. I had to call AT&T Tech Support, to get help. The tech happened to have been a "geek" and honestly, built a "Strong password that was at least 12 characters long and include a mixture of upper/lower case letters, digits, and special characters. For example, the password "M@ry Had a L1ttl3 L4mb" is a much better choice than "123456" or "qwerty"." (Once again, quoted from Bob)

Again, I thank the stars above, that I got a "geek", who helped me create a STRONG password, for my Wi-Fi protection. So, in reality ... You must use WKA2 with PSK option and a STRONG password, using a mixture of upper/lower case letters, digits and special characters. Plus, using the MAC Filtering List, is the cherry on the whole deal. :)

Posted by:

25 Nov 2013

is it safe to use internet in a public wifi?

EDITOR'S NOTE: See http://askbobrankin.com/the_big_problem_with_free_wifi_hotspots.html

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