How to protect your wireless router

wireless router

So you've splashed out on a speedy, spangling 50Mb broadband deal but then, one day, everything starts to slow down. You test your speed and then you throw stuff: you're only getting 4Mb.

What's going wrong?

It could be that your wireless broadband connection is being 'piggybacked'.

Even more worryingly, you might not have the tip off of slow speeds to tell you if the local terrorist sleeper cell is using your credit card details to buy anthrax.

"Many of us have a cavalier attitude to wi-fi use, despite the very real dangers posed by unauthorised use," says Michael Lynch, an identity fraud expert from CPP.

"We urge all wi-fi users to remember that any information they volunteer through public networks can easily be visible to hackers. It's vital they remain vigilant, ensure their networks are secure and regularly monitor their credit reports and bank statements for unsolicited activity."

We show you how.

1. Password protect your wireless

Many people don't bother with a network key which leaves their wireless network and potentially their documents and data open to anyone within range.

The best way to stop anyone from accessing your wireless network is to ensure that access is restricted to those who know the network's key.

'Ethical hackers' at insurance and card protection firm CPP have found that 82% of Brits believe that their home broadband connection is secure but, of the 40,000 networks in six cities identified by the hackers, just under half didn't have a password and only basic security encryption that could be hacked in seconds.

The 'network key' is essentially a password you enter when connecting to the network.

You can alter the strength of your network's password protection by choosing a particular method of encryption, either WEP or WPA.

WEP vs WPA

WEP and WPA are both types of encryption used to protect wireless networks the basic difference between them is that one is useful while the other is a bit like a broken pencil: pointless.

With WEP protection, the wireless router generates a 10 or 26 (64bit or 128bit) character sequence of random letters and numbers which becomes the password for anyone wanting access to your network.

This was all well and good until someone worked out how to hack it.

Have a quick search on Google for 'How to hack WEP encryption' and you'll realise that WEP encryption is about as secure as marriage to Elizabeth Taylor.

WPA on the other hand requires you to choose your own password which you can make as difficult to hack as you like ensuring only the people you tell the password to can log on.

Choosing a decent alpha numeric password that is not easy to guess and is changed frequently will make it more difficult for hackers to jump your wireless connection.

2. Hide your SSID

Once you have chosen a secure set up you have the option to hide the SSID.

That's the name you will assign the connection. This means it will not appear in the available networks when neighbours scan for wireless networks in your area.

If you want you can create an access list on the wireless router where you can add the MAC address from your computer, this will mean it will only allow computers on the access list access to the internet.

3. Keep an eye on your usage

Sending and receiving doesn't happen for free. Every time you send an email or watch iPlayer your broadband provider has to foot the bill as the data whizzes its way around the world and these costs are passed onto you, the user.

If you are on an 'unlimited' broadband package this shouldn't matter as all charges for downloading and uploading are included in the monthly price.

But those with broadband deals with a limited amount of usage every month may have to pay extra should this limit be breached.

Not only will password protecting your network help prevent this happening in the first place, however, but you can double check by monitoring your bandwidth usage with handy free programs like NetMeter to ensure that no unauthorised activity is going on.

4. Build the great firewall of China

Finally, it's vital to protect broadband connections from virtual intruders as well as those physically near you.

Nearly all routers have a built in hardware firewall which is a far more robust defence than any software firewall.

This will prevent any unwanted attention from hackers and any unauthorised traffic attempting to connect to your computer from the Internet.

Consult the manual for your router and make sure your firewall is turned on but remember that a firewall on its own won't protect you from viruses so always have anti-virus software installed and up to date.

Check our guide to online safety for more information on the security packages offered by all the major broadband providers.

Windows users can also easily switch on the Windows firewall to protect the incoming and outgoing traffic on their computer.

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