Are you a Wifi Moocher?

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If you’re one of those people who thinks an unsecured wifi connection is an open invitation to come on in, you’re not alone. A new poll conducted by Wakefield Research for the Wi-Fi Alliance found that nearly one in three wifi users who responded have tried connecting to someone else’s wifi without asking. But are wifi moochers wifi thieves?

Unfortunately, according to federal law and the laws in many states, the answer is yes. That’s because a wireless network is a resource the account holder has paid for. So “borrowing” it without permission constitutes theft of services. It’s not like using free wifi when you buy a cup of java at Starbucks. It’s more like entering a house through an unlocked door, turning on cable TV and using the phone. Do you think that’s ethical or legal?

People have been arrested and fined for piggybacking on someone’s wireless network. But it hasn’t happened a lot. With over 200 million households using wifi networks and up to 750,000 hotspots around the world, it’s tough to catch wifi pirates committing an invisible crime.

Why should anyone care? After all, wifi is just a lot of radio waves; and they’re supposed to belong to the public. Maybe that’s why there are tons of wifi radar devices advertised on the web that allow you to find wifi access points. There are even companies that sell wifi apparel – like T-shirts and neckties with built-in wifi detectors – to let you check whether there’s wireless Internet access in the neighborhood.

But alas, when it comes to “borrowing” an unsecured wireless connection, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Hopping on someone’s wifi  can lead to stiff fines and penalties from the account holder’s ISP, if you get caught. That’s not all. Wifi mooching is a two-way street. It can jeopardize your laptop security and the security of other computers on your network.

Many wifi users seem to understand the importance of keeping their wifi passwords private. According to the Wakefield Research poll for the Wi-Fi Alliance, 40% of those responding said they would be more likely to trust someone with their house key than with their wireless network password. Yet, many still haven’t taken steps to protect their password, even though the consequences can be dire.

In 2010, an Ontario man had his computer’s hard drive searched by the police who were looking for child pornography. According to the National Post, someone outside the man’s house had hijacked his unsecured wireless connection, using it to download kiddie porn. Crimes like that aren’t unusual. They happen every day, and they could happen to you.

Here’s what you can do to protect yourself from wifi pirates.

  • Secure your home wireless network. Use strong wifi encryption. That means using WPA or WPA2 instead of WEP, which is an easy target for hackers.
  • Change the default password on your wireless router. Create a strong password that’s between eight and twenty characters long and doesn’t include any dictionary words or personal information. It should be a mix of upper and lower case letters, numbers and symbols that’s easy for you to remember but difficult for others to guess.
  • Keep your firewall turned on and your security software up to date.
  • Check the law in your state to find out if piggybacking on unsecured wireless connections is illegal.
  • If you see evidence that someone has gained unauthorized access to your wireless network, contact your service provider.
  • Turn off the option that automatically connects your device to any wireless signal. Only connect to trusted networks.
  • Use a VPN (virtual private network) like PRIVATE WiFi™ to ensure that all your information online goes through a secure tunnel that’s invisible to hackers.

If you’ve been a victim of piggybacking or you’ve been a piggybacking perp, we’d like to hear what you think. Is it ethical? Should it be legal or illegal?

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