How to keep people from stealing your Wi-Fi

Give digital trespassers the boot.

You don’t want neighbors or passers-by stealing your Wi-Fi any more than you want them stealing your water, electricity, or carefully curated collection of Blu-ray movies. In fact it’s more serious than that—if someone can hook onto the same network as you, it becomes easier for them to snoop on your browsing and your locally stored files.

So how do you go about locking things down? Thankfully, keeping unwelcome visitors away from your Wi-Fi isn’t difficult and doesn’t require an IT qualification. Here’s what you need to do.

Keep changing your password

By far the easiest way to boot freeloaders off your wireless network is to change the Wi-Fi password. You need to do this through your router’s settings, so either dig out the manual or run a quick web search to find the instructions for your particular make and model.

Change the password to something very hard to forget (for you) and impossible to guess (for everyone else), and you’ll have a clean slate as far as access to your wireless network goes. You will have to suffer the inconvenience of reconnecting all of your devices and computers, but that’s a small price to pay for a fresh Wi-Fi start. Pick something that’s important to you, like a date or a name, but that no one else would think of, so it’s simple for you to enter and secured against unwanted visitors.

Wi-Fi settings for a wireless 2.4 GHz router.
Reset your Wi-Fi password to put the number of people with access back down to zero. David Nield

The router’s initial password is often printed on a sticker that’s attached to the device itself, so changing it will prevent guests from spying on the security code. If the password’s only in your head or somewhere secure, no one else can connect until you tell them what it is.

Actually, that’s not quite true—some routers feature one-touch WPS (Wi-Fi Protected Setup) connectivity, so connecting to Wi-Fi can be done with a push of a button on the router itself. If you’re worried about someone doing this to get on the web, you can usually disable it through the router settings.

Check your router settings

While you’ve got your router configuration page open, a few other settings are worth looking at. First, change the default password you for accessing the router settings page to something else—this will stop anyone who might gain access to your network from changing the Wi-Fi password themselves. As you saw when you accessed your router settings for the first time, you need a password to get into the menus and a separate one to connect to Wi-Fi, so changing them both gives you maximum protection.

It’s also worth applying any pending firmware updates, which ensures your router is running the latest and most secure version of its own basic operating system. Again, with so many router makes and models on the market, we can’t give you instructions for each one, but it should be simple to do—find the instruction booklet or a guide on the web for your device, and it will only take a couple of minutes.

Wi-Fi router settings showing which devices are connected to your internet.
Your router should also be able to tell you which devices are connected. David Nield

Elsewhere in your router’s settings you should find a screen listing the devices connected to your Wi-Fi: Is there anything there you don’t recognize? You often have the option to disconnect a device, depending on the type of router you’ve got, though you might need to do a bit of detective work to identify the devices your router lists.

Finally, you should be able to find a setting that “hides” your network (the technical term is the service set identifier, or SSID) from view, so it won’t appear when your neighbors or visitors scan for Wi-Fi on their devices. If you need to connect a new device, you’ll need to enter the SSID manually. It’s not a huge improvement in Wi-Fi security, but it’s a neat trick that can help you stay under the radar of hackers and Wi-Fi freeloaders.

Other security tips

If you want some extra help spotting who’s on your network who maybe shouldn’t be, beyond what your router offers, try Fing for Android or iOS, or Acrylic Wi-Fi for Windows. All those apps are free (for non-commercial use), and are easy to navigate around no matter what your level of networking know-how. Various other apps are available to do the same job too.

Ethernet
Wire up all your devices and you can even turn Wi-Fi off. Moebiusdream/Pixabay

Installing a VPN on your computer or using a browser that has one built in doesn’t do anything extra in terms of stopping people from connecting to your Wi-Fi, but it does add an extra layer of encryption between you and the web—so that anyone who does manage to gain access to your network will have a much harder time trying to snoop on your activities (like which websites you visit and the data you’re sending). While a VPN might slightly slow down your connection speed, it keeps you a lot safer—just be sure to choose a reputable, paid-for service.

Finally, if your computer is close enough to the router to wire it up directly, and you’ve got strong cellular reception on your phone, you could turn off Wi-Fi on your router every once in a while, which can be done through the router settings on all modern boxes. No one’s going to be able to hook up to your Wi-Fi network if it’s switched off.

David Nield

David Nieldis a tech journalist from the UK who has been writing about gadgets and apps since way before the iPhone and Twitter were invented. When he's not busy doing that, he usually takes breaks from all things tech with long walks in the countryside.