1. Create a password and set your router for encryption. This will stop Lawn Mower Guy, and anyone else within wireless range, from logging on to your home network. If you are just setting up your wireless router, the installation software will offer you the option of having a password. Click “Yes.” If your Wi-Fi is already set up but has no password, consult the instruction manual that came with your router or call your router manufacturer for help. (Note: The encryption function is not difficult to switch on, but the process varies with each brand of router. That’s why you’ll need to consult the instruction manual.)
2. Update your computer’s operating system, applications (Word, Safari, etc.), and virus protection. Sounds like a job for a teenage techie, but it’s actually simple to do (requiring just a few mouse clicks in the right places) and usually free. Here are some easy-to-follow instructions, whether you have a Mac or a PC:
- Update your computer’s operating system and applications. On a PC, go to Start, then Control Panel, then Automatic Updates, and change the preferences so your computer updates automatically every day. On a Mac, go to Apple, then System Preferences, then Software Updates. The latest versions of software will have the most sophisticated security features. While you’re there, check that your firewall is on. Follow the instructions above and click on Firewall in a PC’s control panel, or under System Preferences on a Mac, click on Sharing, then Firewall.
- Install or update virus protection. If this didn’t come with your computer, buy Norton 360 (symantec.com, $80) for a PC or Norton AntiVirus 11 (symantec.com, $50) for a Mac. If your computer came with virus protection, be sure to check for regular updates by following the instructions in step one.
3. Connect only to legitimate hot spots. Many public places (Starbucks, McDonald’s, airports) offer Wi-Fi access that’s relatively safe to use. There’s usually a sign in these locations stating the name of the network you should connect to. If the name of the network that pops up on your computer doesn’t match the sign or sounds fishy, don’t log on. Hackers have been known to create phony hot spots.
4. Limit your Web activity away from home. Even a legitimate public network is still shared, so it’s not as safe as a password-protected system. When you’re away from home, don’t make online purchases or send e-mails that contain private information, and avoid online banking―even if it’s just to check your balance. That latte sipper across the room could be using his laptop to spy on yours.