How to find out if someone is stealing your WiFi internet connection and steps to prevent it.
As technology has increased over the years, so has the speed and ease of access to the Internet especially with wireless internet or WiFi. WiFi used to be found only in coffee shops, libraries and airports, but now many people use WiFi in their home. The problem with using WiFi is that if it is not secured properly, other people can access your network and even information on your computer.
If someone uses your WiFi network to access the internet it is called piggybacking. When wireless squatters steal your WiFi, they slow down your bandwidth and they can steal information off your computer or infect machines on your network with a virus.
Many courts are now looking to criminalize the theft of WiFi. A court in Michigan let a man off on felony charges for stealing a WiFi signal from a coffee shop while parked in his car. The man had been checking his e-mail and browsing the Internet before he was arrested and informed it was illegal to do so. Prosecutors eventually determined the man had no idea what he was doing was illegal.
How a WiFi Network Works
A wireless network is comprised of a broadband Internet connection from a DSL, cable, cellular or satellite modem. You attach the modem to the wireless router, which distributes the signal and creates a network.
This is referred to as a local area network, or LAN. You can use the LAN to connect your desktop or laptop computer, iPod, and printer. Some home security systems, appliances, and thermostats can also use your LAN to provide remote access. Your router will have what's called a dynamic host client protocol, DHCP table. The DHCP table is the list of every piece of equipment allowed on the network.
Each device has its own media access control, or MAC address. MAC addresses are assigned by the manufacturer, but can be changed by users with some effort. Your router uses these addresses to assign each machine on your network an Internet protocol or IP address.
Detecting Unauthorized WiFi Theft
A few symptoms of WiFi theft may be slow internet access and intermittent losses in Internet access. If you regularly experience these problems, maybe you have something wrong with your wireless connection, but having intermittent problems with your Internet performance, especially at the same time each day, it's a red flag that someone is piggybacking off your wireless connection.
The first and simplest thing you can do is check out your wireless network connection and see if it's secure. When you install your router, you're given the option of setting a wireless encryption protocol (WEP) key. Basically this is a password-protected method for you to log on to your own wireless network. By not using a WEP you are operating an open network which means anyone within range can access your wireless freely. If you do not secure your WiFi it can be hard to prove that a squatter is actually stealing.
Even with a WEP key in use, it is still possible for someone to bypass this protection. To determine if someone is logging onto your wireless network, you check your wireless network log. For Windows users; click your Start Menu then double-click My Network Places. Next, double-click View Entire Network. If there are more devices connected than you have allowed on your network, someone has accessed your network.
Another method is to check your router's DHCP client table. Much like viewing your network, your DHCP client table will list the machines on your network. If the number exceeds what you've set up, you have someone stealing your WiFi.
How to Secure your WiFi
A WEP key is absolutely necessary for securing a wireless network, but this is not enough. A sophisticated PC user can find ways around this safeguard. A second layer of safety would be to use a security protocol such as WiFi protected access (WPA). This route is more secure but can still be hacked. Most wireless routers have this as an option during the installation process.
You can also use manual DHCP assignment. To do this, simply set your router's DHCP to the manual setting and enter in each of your computer's physical addresses. This will restrict your network to allow only those computers recognized by the router.
If you don’t feel comfortable manually entering DHCP addresses you may want to consider generating a MAC access list which usually can be created through the browser interface of the router. The MAC address lists can also be bypassed by experienced WiFi thieves, but when used in conjunction with other security methods; your network will be fairly secure.
Turn off your router's SSID, service set identifier broadcasting. This will make your network invisible which will make it much harder to steal.
Internet monitoring software is another option. Monitoring software will walk you through some of these methods and is user friendly for those who aren't as comfortable setting up wireless security methods. In addition, monitoring software makes it easy to see what is going on with your wireless connection. Your WiFi router may have some built-in software that will help you monitor your network so carefully read the user’s manual to determine your best option.