Is your internet a little slow? Do YouTube videos take too long to buffer? Do your Netflix programs show up in a lower resolution than expected? We’ve got some bad news for you — someone next door may be stealing your Wi-Fi.
While you might not mind a neighbor borrowing a bit of bandwidth, allowing unauthorized devices to use your internet isn’t a good idea, especially given the havoc it can wreak on your connection speeds and your peace of mind. After all, nobody wants to leave themselves susceptible to outside intruders if they can help it.
How people steal Wi-Fi (and why it sucks)
There are a number of ways that others can hijack your Wi-Fi for their own use, but the most common cases occur when people nearby get a little lazy and simply click on your Wi-Fi name when looking for available connections. Note that this happens when you don’t protect your Wi-Fi with passwords and proper security. Unfortunately, this is still a common occurrence. Actual hacking, where people break into your Wi-Fi with software designed to do so, is far more rare and less of a concern.
When it occurs (in the casual way), the biggest detriment to Wi-Fi theft is that it can slow down your connection. There’s only a certain amount of bandwidth to go around, and if yours is already divided up between a few computers, a smart TV, and a couple of phones, there’s a good chance that you’ll start seeing slower speeds when an internet freeloader streams a high-definition video.
Many service providers have also started putting data caps on home internet usage, and if one of your neighbors uses your internet for data intensive activities, you could see additional charges on your monthly bill.
In addition to slow connection speeds, an unsecured wireless router also opens you up to serious security risks. While your neighbor might only be looking for a free place to check their email, an unsecured router can be used by others to glean data from the web sites you visit, access devices on your network, or infect your computer with a virus. They can also use your internet connection to perform illegal activities. If that happens, guess whose door the authorities will knock on when they try to track your neighbor down.
Determining if someone is stealing your Wi-Fi
Method 1: Use an app
A number of apps are available to provide automatic searches for unusual devices logged into your Wi-Fi network. Checking those devices, especially if they’re connecting at odd times of day when no friends are over, can provide valuable clues. Here are a few apps that can help you pinpoint problems.
Wi-Fi Inspector: This Chrome download may have a few ads, but it still provides a free look at all devices on your network, including important details like device names, IP addresses, and more. You can save a list of customized devices and immediately note if unfamiliar ones have logged on.
F-Secure Router Checker: F-Secure is a web-based tool that is useful if you want to avoid any downloads. This tool checks for more serious hacking — specifically, it looks for signs that someone is using stealthy setting tweaks to hijack your internet, which may be useful for tougher cases.
Wireless Network Watcher: This bit of independent software is designed to help Windows and MacOS users watch for suspicious wireless activity and monitor all currently connected devices. It’s similar to Wi-Fi Inspector, but with broader compatibility if you don’t want to use a Google app.
Fing: Fing is an iOS download for more mobile-oriented protection. It allows you to immediately see connected devices, what type of devices they are, and the nature of their connection, MAC address, and so on. You can also check Wi-Fi connection behavior to note particularly busy times that could indicate someone else is hopping onto your network.
Method 2: Check administrator logs
If you suspect that someone is stealing your Wi-Fi, you need to log in to your router’s administration page. Most people can do this by typing “192.168.1.1” or “192.168.2.1” into the address bar. If these don’t work, swing on over to our guide for accessing your router’s admin panel.
Once you’ve accessed the admin page, you’ll need to locate the page listing the various Media Access Control (MAC) addresses connected to your computer. The location of this page will differ depending on your router, but you may find it under “wireless configuration,” “wireless status,” or in the “DHCP client” list. You can use this list to count how many devices are connected to your internet. If you see six MAC addresses — any device connected to your network will have its own unique MAC address — but only have four devices in your home, somebody is probably stealing your internet.
Note: Old phones, gaming consoles, Wi-Fi enabled cameras, and other connected devices may show up on the MAC address list. You can get a better handle on what MAC address represents what device by using a website like macvendors.com.
Wireless encryption to keep outsiders away
If you suspect someone is stealing your Wi-Fi, it’s a good idea to beef up security. If you don’t have a password on your network, add one. If you still use the default router name and password, change it — you can do this from the admin page on your router.
To change your password, look for the PSK or Pre Shared Key in your security settings. Changing your wireless password will kick off all current devices (including those unwanted freeloaders), so you’ll have to reconnect your devices once you have a new password.
To change your router name, locate the Service Set identifier (SSID). This is typically found in the wireless settings menu.
Lastly, it’s important to use the strongest wireless network encryption available for consumers, which is currently WPA2. If your router was manufactured prior to 2006, it may not be compatible with WPA2 encryption. If that’s the case, you may want to think about getting a new router. Thankfully, we have a few suggestions.