Wireless technology has changed the way we communicate. Cell phones and Wi-Fi Internet access keep us constantly in touch with each other and with what's happening around us. But this 21st century revolution also poses a serious threat...to our wallets and our peace of mind.
When crooks get their hands on our wireless devices and services, they'll either use them at our expense, sometimes running up bills for thousands of dollars, or they'll steal the confidential information we store digitally so they can impersonate us - a crime we know as identity theft.
In the same way that wireless usage and technology have advanced by leaps and bounds in the past few years, so too have the skills of hackers and other criminals seeking ways of breaking into our wire-free worlds.
A handful of simple safety precautions can largely stop most of these crooks in their tracks. Let’s take a look at some of the most important things you can do to protect yourself right now:
Using Wi-Fi for Internet Access
If you have a device known as a router which enables multiple computers to wirelessly access each other and the Internet in your home, your system could also be open to an outside hack-attack. Although it sounds daunting to safeguard your network you need to access some of your router’s settings. This usually involves using software that came with the device or keying in a sequence of numbers in your web browser (e.g. Internet Explorer or Firefox), which will open the settings there. You should find this explained in your router manual; if you don’t have it, go online to the maker’s website and download it from there. Once you’re in, this is what you need to do:
- Change the network’s default name (technically called the SSID) which is usually something like the name of the maker (e.g. “Linksys”). Hackers can easily guess these.
- Set a password for the whole network, so every new device that connects has to be programmed with this. Choose a difficult password with numbers, letters and, if possible, symbols.
- Set the built-in security level. This is usually indicated by letters such as WEP, WPA and WPA2. You don’t need to know what they mean; just choose the strongest available (WPA2 is best).
- Switch off your network identity broadcast. Most networks advertise their existence to anyone within range by broadcasting the name of SSID, but most router settings allow you to switch it off.
If you don’t feel confident doing this, find a friend, neighbor or relative who can help.
To add additional security, you need a firewall on each of your PC’s.
This is basically a program that monitors and controls the movement of data in and out of your network. Many routers have a firewall built in (as does Microsoft Windows) but the most secure option is to use an Internet Security suite that includes antivirus and firewall applications. As long as you keep them updated, they’ll stop the hackers. Do an online search for “Internet Security software” and you’ll see what’s available.
More and more these days, though, we find ourselves using other people’s networks when we’re out and about, whether that’s in the library, airport or local coffee shop.
The important thing to know is that these networks are usually totally unprotected-they have to be, so anyone can use them, but that’s like an open door for hackers. For instance in hotels, Wi-Fi networks may require a password that you get from the front desk, but anyone can have access.
The golden rule for using these open networks
is, again, ensure you have up-to-date security software on your device. You can even get software specially developed to protect your files from access during open networking. Also, be wary about keying in any confidential information or downloading anything in an open environment. Sign off
from any password-protected site you’re using when you’re done.
Keep out the cell phone hackers
That tiny little communication device you call a cell phone is a piece of dynamite in the wrong hands. Crooks aren’t so much interested in your phone as in stealing your call minutes or personal data. So –
- Always password-protect it, preferably with an auto switch-on, that kicks in after a few minutes of non-use.
- Write down the device’s serial number, SIM number and other relevant unique information about the device; if you don’t know them, ask the provider.
- Keep a note of the 1-800 number of your provider and contact them immediately, with the info from the point above, if your device is lost or stolen, so they can switch it off or even clear data.
- If your phone has Bluetooth (most do) switch it off when not in use; hackers have software that enable them to use Bluetooth to download data from your phone and even to “clone” the device.
- Beware of ringtones and “free” cell phone game downloads. Sometimes these carry a deadly payload, like software that secretly makes premium line calls charged to your phone bill. In other cases, downloading certain games signs you up for a monthly “club” membership that costs around $10 a month, without you realizing, or it installs software that steals and transmits confidential information from your phone.
- Carefully scan your bills every month for tell-tale signs if someone has hooked you for extra fees.
- Watch what you say! No cell phone is 100% secure. Eavesdropping software is widely available and hackers can use the information they pick up for identity theft or even blackmail.
We live in a digital world, and most of us just couldn’t imagine life without our cell phones and Wi-Fi access. It can be quite expensive. In addition to that monthly bill, make sure you don’t become one of the users who have to pay a much higher price at the hands of hackers.