Wi-Fi is a hot commodity—especially right now when remote work and school are critical to everyday life and people are spending hours online to pass the time when many outside attractions are closed. If you’re lucky enough to enjoy good, working Internet during this time, that’s great—but could someone else be taking advantage of your connection? Here’s how to know if someone is stealing your Wi-Fi, and what to do about it. Plus, watch out for the things you should never do on public Wi-Fi.
Slow Internet speed
According to Alex Hamerstone, GRC practice lead at TrustedSec, there are some telltale signs you have a Wi-Fi thief, the most pedestrian of which is decreased Internet speed. Of course, there could be a whole host of reasons you’re experiencing slower Internet. But if you’re regularly noticing “slower Internet speeds, or more buffering,” you should consider that someone might be stealing your Wi-Fi. Here are other hidden reasons your Internet is so slow.
One of the for-better-or-worse hallmarks of the Internet age is advertising—specifically, those weirdly accurate ads that pop up in pretty much all of your browsers, a subtle reminder that your activity is being monitored. (There is a way to delete 99 percent of your digital footprint, if you want to put a stop to said monitoring.) But if you suddenly start noticing ads that seem distinctly not you, this is often a sign that your Wi-Fi has a squatter, Hamerstone says. “The Wi-Fi thief is likely sharing your IP address, and their browsing history could influence the ads that pop up in your browser while you’re surfing the web,” he explains. “In most cases, that will just be annoying, but it could also be harmful if the Wi-Fi thief is viewing adult or inappropriate content from your network, leading to similar adult-themed ads that pop-up in your Internet sessions.” If this happens, you’ll want to take action immediately. Learn more about how the Internet is keeping tabs on your every move.
If someone is stealing your Wi-Fi, the consequences could be financial as well as annoying and inconvenient. Hamerstone warns, “If you…pay based on how much data you use, or pay when you go over a certain amount of data in a month, then you may get unexpectedly high bills for exorbitant data usage.” If you’re suddenly charged far more than usual for your data bill, you might want to consider that your Wi-Fi network has an uninvited guest.
If you start to suspect that your Wi-Fi is the target of a thief, you should check your router by logging in to see all of the devices connected to your network. (Though Hamerstone also advises just doing this regularly!) If there’s a device that is definitely not something someone in your household owns, you should probably look into it further to identify it. (Be advised, though, that just because a device’s name seems unusual doesn’t mean it’s an interloper. “Don’t be immediately alarmed if you see something that looks odd at first—devices may have unfamiliar names that don’t obviously correlate to what the device is,” Hamerstone says.) This is how often you should reboot your router.
This is another consequence that’ll likely only happen if the Wi-Fi thief is engaging in sketchy or illegal online behavior—and it’s not something you want. “A Wi-Fi thief could also cause your home IP address to get red-flagged by the various spam engines which are relied upon by the major email services and network security providers,” Hamerstone explains. And if this happens, you’ll experience the effects: “The emails you send from your home Wi-Fi network could be blocked altogether or filtered to spam folders because the thief has ruined your IP reputation.” Needless to say, this could become a major issue if you’re heavily reliant on your Internet, especially right now. Watch out for these online scams you need to be aware of.
Issues with your personal devices or data
Of course, Wi-Fi powers more than just computers nowadays. If you start encountering privacy issues with other “smart” or Internet-enabled devices, you could be experiencing the effects of a Wi-Fi thief. “If someone is using your Wi-Fi, then there is a good chance they also have access to any personal devices that share the same network,” says Hamerstone. “This could include laptops, phones, game consoles, printers—even Roku devices and security cameras.” They may not care—they could simply just be trying to snag some free Internet. But worst-case scenario, they could start accessing your personal information. And if your information isn’t properly secured, the Wi-Fi thief could gain access to your bank account or other sensitive content. Here are 5 steps to take to ensure your information is protected online.
In very serious cases, a belligerent Wi-Fi thief could result in a visit from law enforcement. “If the Wi-Fi thief is using your Wi-Fi network to commit crimes, such as making threats to people or accessing illegal content, then it is your IP address that will be linked to the illegal activity and you who will be accused of the crime,” warns Hamerstone. Needless to say, this is when Wi-Fi theft turns into a massive problem: “It can lead to a long and expensive nightmare of trying to prove that you are not a criminal,” Hamerstone says. Even if the thief is committing subtler “crimes” like piracy, that’s still not something you want to be blamed for.
How to prevent Wi-Fi theft
There’s one primary way to keep unwanted Wi-Fi lurkers out: Choose a strong password. Pick a password that only your household will know, and be very careful about who, if anyone, you share it with. “Be especially careful about sharing your password with people who live close enough to use your Wi-Fi from their house or apartment!” Hamerstone advises. It’s not foolproof, as a talented hacker could crack your password, but “this simple step will prevent most instances of opportunistic Wi-Fi theft,” Hamerstone sums up. He also recommends setting up a separate “Guest” network and/or a 5G network, making sure they’ve all got strong passwords. Finally, you should consider using a VPN, which, in addition to keeping you safe on public Wi-Fi, can also protect your information on your own network.
And if you suspect you’re a victim?
Preventing this theft is all well and good, but what if you think you’ve fallen victim to it? The first step, Hamerstone says, is to check your router. “Follow the instructions provided with your router to login to your admin account, and from here you can check to see which devices are connecting to your network,” he says. There are also tools, like the free Fing app, that can identify all of the devices using your Wi-Fi. If you identify an unwelcome device, here’s what to do: “Immediately change both your Wi-Fi network password and the router admin login password, just in case the person had access to this as well,” Hamerstone advises. “You should also reboot your router and check for any software or firmware updates that will improve the device’s operation and security.” This is why you shouldn’t ignore security warnings on your computer. And on a lighter note, here are our favorite cool, funny, and clever Wi-Fi network names.
Alex Hamerstone, GRC practice lead at TrustedSec