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How to Keep Your Home Network Safe

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As convenient as a home wireless network is, it also opens up the possibility of somebody attacking your network and stealing your online information.

In other words, a crafty hacker living or even driving nearby can steal private information...if you haven't taken the proper steps to prevent that. An attack on a network is called an intrusion.

It's important to remember that if you have a wireless network, your router broadcasts a signal in the air over radio waves, and anyone who has a Wi-Fi-enabled laptop or smartphone can see your network's signal.

Worse than that, if you haven't put up the right kind of protections, someone can use your Internet access for free—and, if they're not very nice people, they can do much worse, such as deleting your files and information or infecting your computer with a virus.

Here's a look at the way a hacker (or "cracker") can attack your computer:

Stealing signals.

Most routers and router software will guide you through a process to install some security measures. But if you don't take that step or you use weak security, someone with a laptop or smartphone may be able to use the Internet for free by jumping on your open wireless network. Most people at coffee shops and hotels use the free Wi-Fi signal provided by the management to their customers, but people shouldn't use your network for free.

Zombie takeover.

It's very common for attackers to intrude on computers and install hidden software that just sits there, waiting for instructions from the hacker. For what? To launch an attack on a company's website. On the hacker's command, your infected computer (called a zombie) and thousands more like it send out emails to a website, flooding it with requests and crashing it for a time.

Data theft and destruction.

Imagine the worst: A crafty hacker manages to capture your wireless signal, invade your network, and steal data from your computer or even steal data transmitted while you're online! It happens all the time, especially at large corporations, where hackers are more actively at work. That's where a lot of identity theft takes place. Thankfully, most home networks don't make great targets, even if they are vulnerable. But hackers can still do enough damage simply by deleting programs or files or your hard drive.

An intrusion isn't always detected at first. If you notice your computer taking longer to load Web pages and download files, or if you hear a lot of activity on your PC's hard drive—even when you're not using it—you might have a problem. An intrusion is more obvious if programs start launching on their own or you're suddenly missing important files on your hard drive.

Here's a checklist you can follow to make sure you're practicing safe networking:

  1. Activate your router's built-in wireless security. Your router setup software will tell you to install wireless security, which helps prevent unauthorized access to your network. The weakest level is WEP (Wireless Equivalent Protections); the better levels are called WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access).
  2. Change the default password for your wireless router (if you didn't change it during setup). Make the password secret and give it only to family members and guests. This sets your network up for access by password only. THIS WILL KEEP MOST HACKERS AWAY. Just remember to make your password hard to crack. Don't use your home address or the word "password."
  3. Change the default network name (SSID) of your router. All routers need to have a name for proper setup. But if you don't change the name, a hacker can type in a common network name and at least see that you have a wireless network. From there, he might try to explore it for weaknesses.

Keep in mind that small-time hackers are simply troublemakers looking to cause problems or see what they can find out. They might not be targeting you by name but simply targeting your open network to see what they can find. Always be on the alert!

The best way to keep a hacker from exploiting your network is to make him find an easier target.

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