Wi-Fi piggybacking, or how does someone steal Wi-Fi?

Anton P. | November 22, 2022

Wi-Fi piggybacking or Wi-Fi stealing for free access to the internet is not a victimless crime. Most users have a fixed amount of bandwidth and plenty of devices to share it. If unwanted users connect to your home network, it can put you in danger and slow down internet connections.

Why is it wrong to steal Wi-Fi?

Wi-Fi piggybacking means that unknown individuals within your Wi-Fi network signal range tap into your wireless internet. They gain network access and can steal a substantial portion of your bandwidth. It leaves less for your own internet-connected devices. 

Many might treat Wi-Fi squatting as a harmless act, but users paying for internet plans would be quick to disagree: 

  • Prices for internet plans differ significantly depending on your location. A 2020 study showed users spending $1,109.17 (US), $627.54 (Europe), and $870.86 (Asia) for internet services annually. 
  • These numbers include equipment (router or modem) rentals and professional installation. 
  • The study does not include additional charges that Internet Service Providers might impose. The consequences of Wi-Fi piggybacking can include staggering bills at the end of the month. 
  • If someone manages to join your Wi-Fi network, they could monitor or access each device connected to it. 

How does someone steal Wi-Fi?

Wi-Fi piggybacking or Wi-Fi stealing can happen if you have not configured secure settings. Specifically, you should review wireless router settings and see whether unknown entities can gain access. 

Using a default router password can make it easy for someone to steal your Wi-Fi. It can only take a few minutes for squatters to guess passwords and gain access to Wi-Fi routers.

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Stealing internet to perform illegal activities

Connecting to unprotected Wi-Fi hotspots within range can be a way to cover tracks. If culprits commit crimes from your wireless connection, authorities can initially consider you the main suspect.

Over the years, piggybackers have used their neighbors’ Wi-Fi to download child pornography. Thus, owners of exploited networks faced severe accusations.

While federal agents typically determine the real culprits, the investigation process is nerve-racking. 

Is Wi-Fi piggybacking illegal? 

The use of a Wi-Fi connection without its owner’s consent can be illegal on its own. Squatters can face fines in the UK, Singapore, Italy, Hong Kong, Canada, and other countries, depending on their jurisdiction. 

The legality of Wi-Fi piggybacking in the US varies depending on state laws. However, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act prohibits unauthorized access to computers. 

Courts can extend this regulation to unauthorized connections to networks. It means that culprits can face 180 days in jail and a fine of up to $2,000 for Wi-Fi piggybacking in states like Texas. 

How to tell if someone is using your Wi-Fi

If you suspect Wi-Fi piggybacking, you can confirm this by opening your router’s interface.

  1. Access your router admin interface. To access your router’s admin interface, enter its IP address in your browser’s URL bar. 
  2. Type in the required login credentials (admin password and username). They should be visible on your router if you have not changed them. 
  3. Look for the “connected devices” area (it might differ according to your router) under the DHCP client list. 
  4. The list will likely contain MAC addresses. Verify that each MAC address belongs to your devices. 

How to stop Wi-Fi piggybacking?

You can block Wi-Fi hackers or neighbors from exploiting your network for free internet. 

  1. Change your Wi-Fi password

In the router’s admin interface, you can quickly give your network a strong password. Pick a lengthy and complex combination to reassure that squatters won’t be able to guess it. 

  1. Enable encryption for wireless networking 

The general rule is never to use WPA and disable WEP to keep Wi-Fi secure. If you use outdated encryption, freeloaders can crack even the strongest passwords. The most suitable option is choosing WPA2 encryption

  1. New network name (SSID) 

Note that this option only works if you follow the first tip. 

You can change your network name or hide it, and your network will not appear in the lists of connected networks.

It means you disable SSID broadcast, and your network won’t appear in the lists of connectable networks. Freeloaders will see that your Wi-Fi has suddenly gone offline, but they could find it through other means.

  1. Monitoring software

You can enable new device notifications to receive alerts every time a new gadget joins your network. However, ensure that you use reliable network management software and treat third-party providers cautiously. 

  1. Use MAC address filtering

You can tell your router which devices can establish internet access through your network. This option works to an extent, as you can whitelist MAC addresses belonging to your gadgets.

However, MAC address spoofing is achievable, meaning squatters might hide under approved addresses. On the plus side, it might be enough to keep less tech-savvy piggybackers away. 

  1. Limit the number of connecting devices

You can specify how many devices can connect to your Wi-Fi. Count the ones you regularly use and adjust this number accordingly. 

Note that by default, DHCP allows unlimited connections. However, no device stays connected all the time. Thus, the effectiveness of this option is limited. 

  1. Protect devices from snooping

A Wi-Fi squatter will have the ability to keep tabs on your activities. Thus, it highlights the need for you to trust each device connected to your network. 

While a VPN won’t prevent piggybackers from using your network, it will encrypt your web traffic. Hence, install them on the devices you use regularly. Presumably, users will spend most of their time on smartphones or computers. Thus, begin by securing them.

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Anton P.

Anton P.

Former chef and the head of Atlas VPN blog team. He's an experienced cybersecurity expert with a background of technical content writing.

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