SafeWise tells you step by step how to secure your Wi-Fi and keep hackers off your home wireless network. We look at how to secure your router, make strong passwords, and protect all the devices that use your Wi-Fi network. We even threw in some nontech tips to make upgrading security easy for anyone.
Step 1: Secure Your Router
Your wireless router is like the mothership for your Wi-Fi network. If its defenses are down, your internet connection and every device that uses it are vulnerable to hackers, viruses, and other cyber threats. Put up your shield and thwart attackers with these router security tips.
Start with a Secure Router
Most people use the router provided by their internet service provider (ISP), but that’s not always the most secure option. Instead, purchase a router with features like guest access and parental controls. We recommend the Linksys AC1900, which also includes firewalls and a budget-friendly price.
Rename Your Network
All routers come with a default network name, or SSID (service set identifier). Hackers can tell what kind of router you have based on the SSID, which makes your Wi-Fi network easier to hack. Change the name, but avoid using personal information (like “Judy’s Wi-Fi”) and don’t tempt fate with a name like “Unhackable.”
There are many types of encryption out there, and their names look like a jumbled mess of alphabet soup. Your options are WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy), WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access), and WPA2 (Wi-Fi Protected Access 2). Word is, that WPA3 is just around the corner. Once on the job, encryption protects all the data that flits in and out of your network. The one you want to use today is WPA2. It only takes a few minutes (and about four steps) to enable WPA2 on your wireless router.
Because you already followed our first tip, you have a wireless router with a built-in firewall. But it only keeps you safe if it’s activated. The firewall helps hide your network from cyber attackers looking for targets. To find your router’s built-in firewall, log into your router’s administrative settings and look for a tab or page labeled “firewall” or “security.” Next, look for an enable button. Click that button and hit save or apply. It’s that simple.
Keep Software Updated
Sometimes I feel like software updates have a personal vendetta against me. But their annoying presence is only there to keep our devices and information safe. And that applies to routers as well. Some routers automatically perform updates, but even if that’s the case, you should set a monthly reminder to check in and see if there are any firmware or software updates waiting for your attention.
Pro Tip: Change the default IP address on your router.
This is another trick that makes it harder for hackers to find your network. Usually, the default IP address is just fine, but if you want to be extra secure, it’s not difficult to change it. All you need to do is log into your router as an administrator, locate the IP address, and change it to whatever you want.
Step 2: Use Strong Passwords
This is nothing new, but strong passwords are a cornerstone of online security. When you set up your wireless network, you get to come up with some more passwords to add to your collection. To control your Wi-Fi network, you’ll need an administrator password. You’ll also need a password to connect to the network.
We know it’s tough to create a hacker-proof password—and it’s nearly impossible to remember it. But you don’t have to do it alone. We recommend using a password manager like Dashlane. Not only will it store your passwords but Dashlane will also generate a secure password, so you don’t have to tax your brain too hard.
Pro Tip: Use a passphrase instead of a password.
This is a phrase of at least twenty characters that uses symbols, numbers, and both upper and lowercase letters to make a string of seemingly random words. Because it’s a phrase, it’s easier to remember. But steer clear of common phrases, quotations, or pop culture references.
Step 3: Protect the Devices That Use Your Network
Every device that connects to and uses your Wi-Fi network is a potential gateway to trouble. To keep out as many threats as possible, make sure the devices that use your network aren’t carriers for viruses, malware, or hackers. We recommend the tools below to fortify the wireless devices that connect to your wireless network.
Internet Security Software
Even though your computer, phone, or tablet may already come with some security features, it’s smart to double-down and add an extra layer of protection with third-party internet security software. This software fights off malware, viruses, and other online threats. There are many types of internet security software to choose from, and they can be free or require a monthly (or yearly) subscription. To narrow the field, check out our favorite antivirus and anti-malware software solutions.
Virtual Private Network (VPN)
A VPN creates a private tunnel between your wireless network and the internet. It keeps hackers and other troublemakers from tracking your online activity. It also hides your network and IP address from the outside world. A VPN is usually a paid service that sets up a virtual server that you’ll log into every time you go online.
It’s most important to use a VPN when you’re away from home, using a public hotspot. But many experts recommend logging into a VPN any time you go online. If you want to give the super-stealth VPN life a try, we recommend AVG Secure VPN. For around $60 a year, you get coverage for an unlimited number of devices, 24/7 customer service, and compatibility with Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android. Plus, there’s a free trial period.
Parental Control Software
This is a more specific type of online security, but if you have little ones (or teens) at home, this can be your network security silver bullet. Parental control software helps you keep kids away from inappropriate content, and it can even monitor social media interactions and look out for cyberbullying. Best of all, it usually comes with antivirus and anti-malware protection—so you only need to make one purchase to get multiple benefits.
Our overall best pick for parental control software is Net Nanny. It’s an industry pioneer with a string of awards and positive customer reviews. You can also use it to protect computers and mobile devices, which isn’t always the case with parental control software.
BONUS: Nontech Solutions to Secure Your Wi-Fi
Not every network security solution requires software or top-secret passwords. There are other easy things you can do to make your wireless network more secure. These measures don’t require any tech savvy or software, but they can make a big difference when it comes to keeping miscreants off your home Wi-Fi network.
What features should I look for in a secure wireless router?
Most consumer routers include some security features, but these are the ones that are most important:
If you have kids in the house, you may also want parental controls and time limit controls that let you block access during certain times.
How do I keep neighbors from using my internet connection?
The best way to prevent people from leeching off your wireless connection is to secure the network. Make the network private and require a password to join. You can also turn off the “Broadcast SSID” feature on your router or another access point. This keeps your network from showing up in searches and limits access to those who already have the network name. Another trick is to place your router in the center of your home. This can keep the signal from reaching your neighbor’s realm.
How can I find out what devices are connected to my Wi-Fi network?
Your router should have come with instructions about how to view a list of connected devices. But in general, the easiest way to see what devices are connected to your home network is to use your router’s web interface.
To access the web interface, you’ll need your router’s IP address. All you have to do is enter that address into your web browser. That should pull up the router’s interface. Once you’re in, look for a button or link that will pull up the list of connected devices. Look for names like attached devices, DHCP clients, or connected devices. Click the button, and your list of connected devices will appear.
After the list populates, you may or may not recognize the names of the devices listed. Names can be as obscure as an IP or MAC address, or more specific, referring to an individually-named computer or tablet. (Thanks to my kids, my phone shows up as “Momma’s iPhone.”)
Is it safe to pay bills or shop online over my home Wi-Fi network?
The short answer is yes. Shopping online is a convenience (and hobby) that has become a hallmark of the internet age. Yet it can be a risky proposition. Most people feel safe using their financial data online when they’re at home. If you regularly pay bills or purchase household items online, it starts to feel like you’re just using the checkbooks and filing cabinets of old.
But it’s important not to get too comfortable. First, make sure you only use sites that start with HTTPS (the “S” is for secure) for shopping and paying bills. Next, verify that you’ve secured your router, and if you want extra protection, use a VPN for all financial transactions. And never store your financial information in your internet browser—no matter how convenient it seems.
Pro Tip: Block unwanted devices from your network.
After you’ve identified an unauthorized device on your Wi-Fi network, you can block it forever. Log into your router, find the Security options, click on MAC Filtering, and then Add Device. Enter the address of the trespassing device and click Save or OK.
Rebecca is the lead safety reporter and in-house expert for SafeWise.com. She has been a journalist and blogger for over 25 years, with a focus on home and community safety for the past six. Rebecca spends dozens of hours every month testing and evaluating security products and strategies. Her safety expertise is sought after by publications, broadcast journalists, non-profit organizations, podcasts, and more. You can find her work and contributions in places like TechCrunch, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, HGTV, MSN, and an ever-growing library of radio and TV clips. Learn more