Wireless networks are everywhere — from homes and businesses to public institutions. Many in public spaces offer free connections for any user with a WiFi-enabled device, but not everyone is content with what’s available for no cost. Home and business networks that aren’t properly protected or have poorly chosen passwords are often targets for illicit WiFi access, but what’s the real story? How many people steal WiFi?


Why Fi?

WiFi is a contraction of the terms “wireless fidelity” and refers to any wireless local area network (WLAN) which relies on the 802.11 standards developed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers; in practice, this means just about every connection in American households and businesses. Wireless signals are typically broadcast by a router, which may permit wireless access only or accept hardwired desktop connections as well. Router signals — especially if enhanced by a booster to reach distant areas, like basements — aren’t confined to a home, but also travel outside its walls. How far depends on the power of the booster and how many other connections are present in the area. Other computers or mobile devices that are WiFi-enabled can detect any signal with enough strength and attempt to access the network.

Ten-Finger Discount

So how many people steal WiFi? In 2008, this number was around 18 percent. By 2011, over a third of Americans admitted to stealing WiFi, either by accessing unprotected networks or trying to crack passwords and gain entry. It’s worth noting the 2011 survey data didn’t exclude those who had no WiFi devices or knowledge of WiFi networks, meaning they had no ability to steal access, even if they wanted to try. In other words, the number is probably closer to 40 or 50 percent.

Protecting WiFi networks starts with strong passwords. If available, always use WPA2 encryption, and choose a password that isn’t easy to guess — for example, don’t pick “Password123” but instead use a series of words you’ll remember but no one else will ever guess. In addition, don’t make the name of your network and its password the same; if you choose to call your WiFi network “Myhouse,” don’t also use “Myhouse” as a password.

Checking In

It’s also possible to check your connection to see if anyone else pirating your signal. Start by turning off all the wireless devices in your home, including tablets, laptops, gaming consoles, and smartphones. Next, take a look at your router, which should have a set of indicator lights that flash whenever someone is online. If any of the wireless lights are illuminated, you have an unwanted guest.

To get more details, use your router’s admin console:

  1. First, find your router’s IP address. On a Windows-based desktop or laptop, Go to the Start menu and click on Run.
  2. In the dialog box that pops up, type in “cmd”. This will give you a “default gateway” IP address, which belongs to your router.
  3. Open a web browser and enter this address into the browser, and your router’s admin screen will pop up. Different brands use different usernames and passwords, but most use “admin” as the username and don’t have a default password. Check the manual that came with your router to be sure.
  4. Once you’ve accessed the admin console, find the tab or window that details wireless connectivity. Here, you’ll find a list of all devices connected to your network and their IP addresses. If the addresses aren’t registered to any of your devices, you have someone stealing your WiFi. You should increase your password strength to keep these unwanted guests away.

How many people steal WiFi? A lot, and the number is increasing as networks become more prevalent and easier to access. While it may not be possible to keep the most determined thieves out, you can minimize unwanted connections with strong passwords and the occasional WiFi checkup.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons