FOX19 investigation shows we're in more danger than previously thought as we browse the Internet over WiFi connections.
CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) -
We're online everywhere – all the time.
In the car, at a coffee shop, in the airport, we're accessing the internet whether we think about it much anymore or not.
Now a FOX19 News investigation is revealing just how easy it is for someone to hack into your laptop or smartphone when you're connected to WiFi. And they don't even have to know much about computers.
There are videos online showing what software to use to hack into someone's WiFi router – even those protected by passwords.
"A password is a good first step," said Dave Hatter, a Cincinnati computer expert who owns a software development firm called Libertas Technologies. "But hackers that know what they're doing can use dictionary programs that will literally guess every word in the English language in a few seconds."
Hatter uses a Verizon mobile internet connection for his laptop when he's away from the office. It's super fast. But it costs him about $60 per month.
There may be a cheaper alternative, though.
Hatter and other computer experts say you can protect yourself using any internet connection – even public WiFi networks at hotels and fast food restaurants – by going through a virtual private network.
VPNs allow you to use someone else's server in another part of the world and they encrypt your information so that hackers would have to have the capabilities of the U.S. government's spy agencies to break into your computer.
ProXPN's CEO, Kevin Cook, tells FOX19 News that on a recent trip to China he used his company's product to get around that country's strict internet censorship, often referred to as the Great Firewall of China.
"Yes and, uh, we might want to edit that out," he said, laughing. "We do have workarounds. We are one of the few providers that do. And I won't say how we do that. It's a very stealthy process that we have to go through."
ProXPN's service has free and premium levels.
The free version is painfully slow and reminded us of the early days of home computing when you connected to the internet through a dial-up modem that went through your house's phone line.
We brought that up with Cook when we interviewed him. He acknowledges proXPN throttles bandwidth to 300kbps for customers using the service for free.
"Now that is still good enough to do browsing and email and whatnot," he said.
The premium version starts at $9.95 a month and FOX19 News was allowed to test drive it. You're able to choose where you'd like to get on the internet – through servers in Miami, Seattle, Singapore, and London, for instance. The speed decreases if you choose one of those faraway servers. But hooked-up to proXPN in Miami, we found our download speeds to be quite fast.
Meanwhile, there are steps you can also take at home to make sure a neighbor doesn't try to hop onto your WiFi connection.
Hatter offers these tips:
• Change the default password that came with your router. Anyone can buy another router made by the same company, read what the default password is, and get into your system.
• Make sure your new password is at least eight characters long and includes symbols and/or numbers.
• Next, turn-off the "broadcasting" feature on your router that announces to every computer on the block "I'm a WiFi hotspot. You can connect to me!"
• Also, make sure you set your router so that it's using the strongest level of encryption.
• Finally, if you really want strong protection, Hatter says you can even tell the router to only allow WiFi access to those computers in your household.
• If you're unsure how to do any of these steps, contact your internet provider or the manufacturer of the router.
It's a serious issue, too. Hatter says there are cases of people using someone else's WiFi connection to conduct illegal activities.
"There have been instances where people have gone out and downloaded child porn and that sort of thing," said Hatter. "And when the FBI shows-up, they're initially coming to your house because that's where it looks like it went."
As Hatter says, you may eventually get it straightened-out. But FBI agents showing-up at your door would have to count as a very bad day.