Picture this. It's Friday night and you just got home from work after a challenging week. All you want to do now is turn on your TV and watch the new season of your favorite show that just dropped on Netflix.
You get the red Netflix logo, then... uh-oh, it's buffering. A minute goes by and now you've got an image, but it's so pixelated that you can't even tell what's happening in the scene. Great, now it's back to buffering.
This is not the evening you envisioned.
Your slow Wi-Fi could be the result of a few things. It could be an issue with your internet service provider (ISP), or maybe your modem and router need a reboot. Perhaps it's because everyone in the neighborhood came home with the same idea and you're all fighting for bandwidth in the same service group. Or just maybe, just maybe it's a neighbor piggybacking on your network.
It's certainly possible. Routers these days can broadcast a signal well beyond your home's walls. Now it's time to find out if that's the case, correct the issue and make sure it doesn't happen again. That means updating your router security settings and hiding your wireless network. We'll tell you how.
Why you don't want your neighbors on your network
It's not just about the inconvenience of slow internet. That's certainly aggravating, but what you really need to think about is the theft of your internet service can actually get you in trouble.
For instance, your ISP most likely prohibits sharing Wi-Fi. If they're tracking your usage and it's much higher than usual or even double, you could be slapped with extra fines or other restrictions. But it gets worse.
Although it's not necessarily legal for your neighbor to piggyback off your wireless network and "steal" your service, there's been no real uniform attempts at criminal enforcement aside from small fines depending on where you live.
But think about this: what if your neighbor is going beyond just stealing your internet service? It's going to be a big problem if your neighbor is using your wireless network for any illegal activities, which can cover a lot of ground. And it's your name attached to that account when law enforcement gets involved. Then your ISP fees are the least of your worries when police show up at your door.
Take a close look at your wireless network
Now that you know the ramifications, now you need to figure out what's happening. If you've ruled out problems with your service and tried the usual corrective steps, it's time to check out your router. Depending on the make, model and how new it is, there's a good chance a companion app is available to access your router settings.
Otherwise, login through a web browser with the provided IP address, which in most cases is 192.168.1.1. That isn't the default IP address for every router, but it should work on many. Other common addresses are 192.168.0.1 and 192.168.2.1. Click or tap here if you need help finding the manual for your router.
Access your router by logging in with your username and password. Hopefully it's not the default credentials that came with the router, because that could be a big indication of why it's so easy for someone to access your network in the first place. I've got more on that further down.
Look for the list of connected devices. Some you'll be able to identify based on IP and MAC address, or the name(s) you've assigned, while others might not be so clear.
But if you see something called Bob's iPhone and you don't know any Bobs, it looks like you have a problem. We've also got a full list of additional tools you can use to check your network for devices that aren't supposed to be there.
Changing router settings and hiding your network from view
Whether you know for sure there's been an intrusion or not, it's still time to check and potentially modify some settings on your router. First thing's first, check the major security features.
Improve your login and network credentials
When you take your brand new router out of the box, it's going to come with a default set of credentials for the control panel. For example, the username could be "admin" and the password might be the same thing. Pick a much less generic username and create a sophisticated password. Whatever you do, don't be that person still using passwords like these.
The visible name of your wireless network, or SSID, will also be generic right out of the box, most likely the name of the manufacturer and perhaps followed by a few numbers.
Change that as well, because if you've got someone looking to get into your network, the manufacturer's name alone can make it easy to find default login information if you haven't changed it, as well as any brand-specific exploits. Pick something else, but name it in a way that's not going to identify you or your family. Be creative.
Then, there's the network password. Definitely don't use easy passwords for this, either. Although it can be a pain to remember, choose a long and complex password or passphrase made up of letters, numbers and symbols. Need some help? Check out our tips on creating strong passwords and passphrases by tapping or clicking here.
With a strong password, yes, it'll take some extra time to set up your own devices but it'll make it hard for a hacker to crack. Not only that, but it'll make it hard to share with others who don't necessarily need the information. Change it often, too. How about changing it around the same time you're checking the batteries in your smoke detectors?
If login credentials for your network and the router itself are nearly impossible to remember, that's great. Consider a password manager to store the information for you, such as KeePass.
Note: These tips aren't just for setting up new routers. It's also strongly encouraged that you check security settings on your existing device.
Check your Wi-Fi encryption
While you're still logged into your router, check out the wireless security settings. As long as router encryption is enabled, no one will be able to log on and use your Wi-Fi without the password.
Look for the appropriate security menu for your model and make sure it's set to the encryption level beginning with "WPA2." If you see "WPA2-PSK AES," it's the most secure encryption for most modern routers.
You might even have a better option available. For instance, if you have a brand-new, high-end router, it could be equipped with the new standard, "WPA3."
Whatever you do, stay away from WEP. If that, or WPA (without the 2 or 3), is all you have available to choose from and there are no available firmware updates, it's time to upgrade your router to something more secure.
While you're at it, enable your router's firewall and shut down any remote access options. Your router is that much more secure if you can only log into it from a device directly connected by Ethernet cable. Follow this link for additional tips on router security.
Make your wireless network disappear
Here's the grand finale. Now that your router is as protected as it can be, it's time to make it disappear from neighbors and any other would-be freeloader. Out of sight, out of mind, right?
Your router broadcasts its SSID automatically, simply because it makes it easy for your devices to discover and connect to the network. That's what makes it easy for everyone else, too.
You'll also make this change while logged into your router's control panel. Find the menu for wireless settings and you should come across the broadcasting option for your SSID, which is most often enabled by default. Toggle that option off, and you're all set.
Adapting to your now hidden wireless network
Now your wireless network is invisible - kind of. Keep in mind - you're hiding its name, not the fact that it's there. Think of it as a cloaked ship on Star Trek. You won't be able to see it, but it's not too hard to find if you're looking for it.
On the plus side, you shouldn't have to worry about your neighbors "borrowing" your internet service any longer, or committing any other crimes - unless they're skilled in the digital arts. That's because the router will still broadcast a signal from time to time, regardless of the hidden SSID setting and if someone's up to no good and motivated, they'll be able to spot a masked network without any trouble.
The other consideration is it's going to be a little more complicated for you, your family and any trusted visitors to connect to your wireless network. Since it's no longer visible when your smartphone searches for a network, those credentials will need to be configured manually.
It could involve more than just SSID name and password, requiring additional info like the security mode your router is set to. The good news is, once you're signed-on, your device will store info the same way it does any other network.
So it comes down to, is it a good idea to hide your wireless network? The answer is yes. Although there are a couple of extra steps to connect new devices, combining this with your router's extra security measures will kick any unwanted neighbors off your network and keep them off.
After you finish changing your router settings and hiding your SSID, you can get back to watching your show. This time, without the slowdown. And without worrying about police officers knocking on your door.
Are your home's router, TV and phones hack-free?
Our homes are more connected than ever before which makes daily life more convenient, but also more vulnerable to hackers.