Criminals love home Wi-Fi networks. When left open, unsecured and not protected by strong passwords, hackers can attack your gadgets and steal your information. They can upload or download illegal files and they can generally do whatever criminal activity they want.
It is not just about bandwidth theft that could potentially slow your connection down. More importantly, it is also about security and making sure that no Wi-Fi thieves are using your connection for illegal activities. Remember, when law enforcement traces the illegal activity, you - the router's owner - are left being held responsible.
(There are quite a few horror stories of unsecured Wi-Fi networks being used by neighbors for illegal activity. This couple from New Jersey learned this the hard way.)
Of course, your neighbors can be the nicest people in the world and you absolutely trust them dearly. But how about "wardriving" strangers who are always driving around, hunting for unprotected Wi-Fi networks they can exploit? You will definitely need to protect your home Wi-Fi against these roving opportunists.
Here are a few basic tips we recommend for securing your Wi-Fi router against unauthorized network hitchhikers.
Check connected gadgets
Start by taking stock of your network. First, log into your router's administration console. Every router has the same general steps for logging in. (You'll want to have your router's manual on hand to find out the specifics for your router.)
Make sure your computer is connected (either wired or wirelessly) to your router, then just open a web browser and type in the router's IP address. The IP address is a set of numbers and the default depends on your router's manufacturer. The common ones are 192.168.1.1, 192.168.0.1 or 192.168.2.1.
(If you don't have your manual anymore, you can check your manufacturer's site. Or visit this site that has thousands of manuals you can download.)
Once logged in, check the DHCP Client List or Attached Devices section that shows what gadgets are connected to your router. Typically, they are listed by IP address, MAC address and/or Name.
Once you have surveyed this list of connected gadgets, identify the ones that belong to you. Your computer should show up in the list using its name, for example. Your tablet or smartphone should have the manufacturer name in there somewhere.
If you can't make sense of the list, simply turn off each gadget one by one or just disable the gadget's Wi-Fi to match the corresponding gadget to the specific network address detail. For tracking purposes, jot these network details down for future reference.
Once you've taken an inventory of your known gadgets and discover connected addresses and gadgets that are unknown, you know you have a culprit. You might need to check back a few times if the internet slowdown is random. The culprit might only be using your internet infrequently.
If you want an easier solution, you can grab the aptly named Wireless Network Watcher. This free program gives you a list of gadgets connected to your Wi-Fi network. You can quickly fire it up whenever you want to check or just leave it open for real-time monitoring.
Even if you spot a rogue connection, however, you won't be able to tell who is connected. Well, not unless you want to barge into your neighbors' houses to check their gadgets' names and MAC addresses. For the record, I don't recommend doing that.
Fortunately, it doesn't matter. Encrypting your Wi-Fi network will usually be enough to keep intruders out. Click here to learn how to secure your Wi-Fi against intruders.
In fact, you should secure your Wi-Fi network no matter what. Like I mentioned earlier, there are too many horror stories of criminals or perverts using someone else's Wi-Fi in hacking attacks or trading illegal images. As the owner of the Wi-Fi, you're going to have to straighten things out with the police, and it won't be fun.
If your network is already encrypted, and an outsider still accessed it, you should change your password immediately. Then keep an eye on things to see if they manage to get on again.
If they do, it's possible they got into your router and set up a backdoor. Reset your router to factory settings - check your manual for instructions - then set it up again from scratch. That means changing the default password, enabling encryption, picking a new SSID and turning off any remote management features.
Note: If you change your encryption password, you will need to update the password on all your gadgets.
If you go through these steps and don't see an unauthorized connection on your Wi-Fi and your internet is still slow, then you'll need to do more troubleshooting.
Test your internet speed to see if it matches what you're paying for. Try running it a few times both plugged directly into the router and over Wi-Fi.
If your Wi-Fi speed is way slower than your internet speed, you might need to upgrade your router. It could just be bogged down with all your gadgets.
Otherwise, call your internet provider and see what the story is. You might be due for a modem upgrade or there could be another problem on the line.