How to Detect an Intruder Tapping Your WiFi

A Friend Emailed Me This a While Back:

“Begin forwarded message: The following text message was received from the next-door neighbor: ‘I’ve been riddled with guilt and I have to confess. I have been tapping your wife, day and night, when you’re not around. In fact, probably more than you. I’m not getting any at home, but that’s no excuse. I can no longer live with the guilt and I hope you will accept my sincerest apology with my promise that it won’t happen again.’

The man, anguished and betrayed, went into his bedroom, grabbed his gun, and without a word, shot his wife and killed her.

A few moments later, a second text came in:

‘Damn autocorrect. I meant ‘wifi’, not ‘wife’.”

No way to tell if it really happened, but joking aside–Wifi theft is a serious problem.

Unauthorized home network tapping is all too common if you have a wireless network set up for everyone to be online at the same time from their various devices. We use ours for both work and entertainment. Most cases of wifi tapping begin with innocent-enough intentions from neighbors who don’t have either the funds or the willingness to pay for their own Internet access. While they may not have any malicious reasons for doing so, unauthorized wifi tapping carries security risks for both parties–namely if the wifi tapper engages in any illegal activity online.

Catching unauthorized cyber-criminals, including unauthorized wifi users, is a difficult task for law enforcement. People who tap their neighbor’s wifi do this in one of two ways: by picking up an unsecured connection from an adjoining house or by gaining access to a network password. They can then reprogram their modem’s settings to mimic those of their neighbor’s.

Due to the guidelines of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, investigating and pressing charges for this kind of Internet hijacking is also a challenge for law enforcement. Many police departments have a lack of funding and experienced personnel to devote to these investigations as well. The public therefore has a responsibility to secure their home networks against unauthorized use.

Step 1: Log in to the WiFi Administrator Account

To view a list of users currently accessing your network, log into your router’s software you installed when you first bought and set it up. If you’re unsure how to do this and didn’t keep your printed user guide, you’re not out of luck. Nearly all recently manufactured routers and modems now have a “Read Me” e-version of their user guide that automatically installs itself along with your wireless device software. If you don’t remember where it installed on your machine, simply go to Spotlight if you have a Mac or the search box under the start-up menu if you have Windows and type in the brand name of your wireless router or modem. I use Spotlight quite a bit because I’m admittedly not the best at remembering file locations if I haven’t recently accessed those files in particular.

Examine the Number and Names of Connected Devices

Once you have your network software pulled up, you should be able to view a table that lists the number of devices connected to your network. At a minimum, this table should include the device names, MAC addresses and IP addresses. Different connected wireless devices can include tablets, smartphones, game consoles or DVD/Blu-Ray players. If you see devices that you don’t recognize as belonging to you, your family members, roommates, significant other or anyone else who lives in the same household, it’s time to lock down the network. If the number of connected devices seems excessively high, it’s worth the extra step to use a MAC address lookup website to help you determine the origin of the devices on your network.

Toughen up Your Network Security

Look up your router manufacturer website and search it for instructions about upgrading the security settings on your device. Change the default network name and password for your router. I was tempted to change the name of ours to “FBI Surveillance Van,” but that idea was vetoed. Check that your wireless network has the latest available security updates and the latest encryption technology. Enable your router’s firewall, and select “stealth mode” if your router comes with this option. Locate the feature that allows wireless administrator access and disable that. With this setting turned off, you can only make changes through a physical connection with an Ethernet or similar cable. It will also cut down on the chances of anyone hacking your wireless network in the future.

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