It may be hard to imagine, but just a mere 20 years ago, the Internet was nothing more than a novelty — a way for incredibly smart college professors and researchers to share information, and for a few people to network across the newly developed World Wide Web. E-mail was nothing like it is today. The primitive e-mail systems found at universities or even through accounts offered with the first Internet service providers (ISPs) such as Prodigy and America Online were often difficult to use.
Fast forward to 2009 and things have changed significantly. Back in the day, you paid for Internet access by the minute. That’s not the case anymore. Like virtually every technology, changes occur quickly and often for the better. On top of that, the technology becomes cheaper and easier to use. The Internet has certainly gone through this transformation. The most recent advance in digital communication is wireless internet or WiFi. Found in coffee shops, libraries and airports throughout the world, WiFi has made using the Internet almost as common as using your cellular phone — which in itself is technology that exploded over the past decade. Unfortunately, unsavory activities inevitably find a way to enter even the most benign settings like the Internet, and that’s (probably) why you’re here.
Chances are you’re reading this article because you suspect someone is piggybacking or using your WiFi without your permission and you want to learn how to determine if you’re correct. When wireless squatters steal your WiFi, they slow down your bandwidth and what’s worse, they can even steal information off your computer or infect machines on your network with a virus. Fear not, this article will give you the ammunition to fight back. Let’s begin by taking a quick look at what makes up your WiFi network so you can prepare yourself to take control of the Internet connection you pay for.
Understanding Your WiFi Network
Before you can detect if someone is ripping off your wireless Internet connection, it’s important to understand some basic computer networking lingo. For more information on how to set up a wireless network, take a look at How WiFi Works. Now, let’s look at a few of the areas in a wireless network that will give you a baseline for determining if your WiFi signal is being sapped unexpectedly.
A wireless network is comprised of a broadband Internet connection from a DSL, cable or satellite modem. You attach the modem to the wireless router, which distributes the signal and creates a network.
This is what’s called a local area network (LAN). This LAN is where you set up computer peripherals such as your desktop or laptop computer and printer. Your router will have what’s called a dynamic host client protocol (DHCP) table. In essence, your DHCP table is your guest list of every allowed piece of computing equipment.
Each device has its own media access control (MAC) address. Think of this as its signature. MAC addresses are assigned by the manufacturer, but can be changed by users, if they know how. Your router uses these addresses to assign each machine on your network an Internet protocol or IP address. The MAC and IP addresses of your equipment will be useful in a moment when we look at ways to detect whether or not someone is stealing your WiFi. For a more in-depth understanding of IP addresses, read What is an IP address?
If you’re confused by some of this computer rhetoric, don’t be. What’s important is that you know what to look for when we get ready to diagnose your WiFi connection. Speaking of which, let’s get to it in the next section. After all, that’s what you came here for.
Detecting Wireless Piggybacking
Okay, it’s time to get down to it. Is your wireless network running slowly? Do you have intermittent losses in Internet access and you can’t figure out why? Chances are, you’ve already detected a WiFi squatter and didn’t even know it. If you regularly experience these problems, maybe you have something wrong with your wireless connection. But if you’re suddenly 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 and it’s time for you to diagnose your WiFi network.
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. If you don’t have one, you’re operating an open network. That means anyone within range can use your wireless for free. While it’s not hacking, it is debatable as to whether this is actually stealing. In any case, if you don’t have a WEP key, you’re vulnerable to WiFi squatting and certainly not deterring squatters.
Even if you have a WEP key, that doesn’t necessarily mean your neighbor hasn’t bypassed it. To determine if he or she is logging onto your wireless network, you can do so by checking your wireless network log. To do this, click your Start Menu in Microsoft Windows, 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, you have WiFi thieves.
A similar method to determining the status of your WiFi user list 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.
Nobody wants to be taken advantage of. What’s more, you certainly don’t want illegal information flowing through your wireless network. That’s why you need to take matters in your own hands. The final section will give you the power to thwart off Internet thieves and protect your wireless connection. Are you ready to fight back? Roll the page to learn how.
Stopping Digital Thieves
A WEP key is an absolute must for any wireless network; however, even those are vulnerable. While WEP protection will stop the guy parking in front of your house, it may not stop a more determined user like your neighbor. In that case, you can use a security protocol such as WiFi protected access (WPA). This route is more secure but can still be hacked by a determined WiFi thief.
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 the manual DHCP route isn’t comfortable for your level of computer expertise, you may want to consider generating a MAC access list which usually can be created through the browser interface of the router. Unfortunately, MAC address lists can also be bypassed by savvy WiFi thieves; nevertheless, when used in conjunction with other security methods, they’re probably enough on a small home network.
Internet monitoring software is also a viable 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. Explore the user guide and help section to see if there’s a built-in application that will help.
Finally, turn off your router’s SSID broadcasting. This effectively makes your network invisible. It’s much harder to steal WiFi from a network that doesn’t appear on anyone’s radar.
Next time you suspect WiFi theft, peek out the front window and see if an unfamiliar car is parked in front of or close to your home. If so, you’ll probably find someone in the car sapping your Internet. It sounds simple, but it could be just that easy to determine if someone is stealing your WiFi.