How to stop Wi-Fi piggybacking?

Anton P. | January 27, 2021

A Wi-Fi-stealing neighbor might be a whimsical scenario for a show, but it is not a victimless crime. Chances are, you have a fixed amount of bandwidth and plenty of devices that share it. Thus, you do not want squatters seizing a portion of your network’s full capacity. Most freeloaders will simply be after free internet access, and their intentions won’t go beyond that. However, more villainous netizens can use you as a scapegoat for their criminal activities. Hence, be prepared to give such trespassers the boot. Luckily, you can do this fairly quickly as long as you know where to look.

Why is Wi-Fi piggybacking unwelcome?

Wi-Fi piggybacking means that bypassers or neighbors within your Wi-Fi signal range tap into your internet connection. They snatch a substantial portion of your bandwidth, leaving 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.

Depending on your location, the price tag on your internet connection can differ significantly. A study in 2020 emphasized that netizens annually spend $1,109.17 in the US, $627.54 in Europe, and $870.86 in Asia for their internet services. These numbers also include costs covering equipment (router or modem) rentals and professional installation. However, they do not take into account additional charges that Internet Service Providers might impose. For instance, clients might need to pay more for going beyond data caps. Thus, the consequences of Wi-Fi piggybacking can include staggering bills at the end of the month.

Additionally, some ISP contracts include clauses prohibiting the share of Wi-Fi with unsubscribed and non-paying users. If this is the case, you unknowingly violate this rule by having piggybackers on your network. However, it all depends on your service provider. It might be that they do not mention such responsibilities for their clients.

Besides increased financial costs and speed drops, Wi-Fi squatting can lead to more unfortunate situations.

Wi-Fi leechers might use your network for illegal activities

Piggybackers might not exploit your Wi-Fi to check social media or stream the newest episodes of their favorite shows. Connecting to unprotected Wi-Fi within their range can be a cover-up. If culprits commit crimes while connected to your network, authorities will initially consider you as the main suspect.

Over the years, a concerning number of piggybackers had used their neighbors’ Wi-Fi to download child pornography.Thus, owners of networks initiating the red-flagged internet traffic faced severe accusations. While federal agents typically determine the real culprits, the investigation process is nerve-racking. After all, innocent users will likely have their homes searched and devices confiscated for further inspection.

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. In the US, the legality of Wi-Fi squatting might vary depending on the state laws. However, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act prohibits unauthorized access to computers. Courts can extend this regulation to unauthorized connections to networks. Some states like Texas treat Wi-Fi piggybacking as a Class B misdemeanor. It means that culprits can face 180 days in jail and a fine of up to $2,000.

How to detect Wi-Fi squatters?

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

  1. Access your router’s admin interface. You can do this by entering your router’s IP address in the URL bar of your browser.
  2. Type in the required login credentials. If you have not changed them, they should be visible on your router.
  3. Find the DHCP settings, and look for the “connected devices” area (it might differ according to your router).
  4. Alternatively, the list will likely contain a MAC address. You can verify that this is your device by finding the MAC addresses of legitimate ones and comparing them. They are usually visible on a label on the device or the box that products came in.

How to prevent Wi-Fi piggybacking?

  • Change your Wi-Fi password. In the router’s admin interface, you can quickly give your network a new password. Pick a lengthy and complex combination to reassure that squatters won’t be able to guess them. Also, enable WPA2 encryption. The general rule is that you should never use WPA and disable WEP. If you use outdated encryption, freeloaders can crack even the strongest passwords.
  • New network name (SSID). Note that this option only works if you follow the first tip. You can change your network name or decide to hide it. It means that you disable SSID broadcast, and your network won’t appear in the lists of connectable networks. For freeloaders, it might seem like your Wi-Fi has suddenly gone offline. However, the chances are that they will still find your network. Thus, while this is possible, it should not be the option you rely on.
  • Monitoring software. You can use network-monitoring software to keep track of devices connecting to your Wi-Fi. For instance, Google’s routers work with their respective apps. 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 with caution.
  • Use MAC address filtering. You can tell your router which devices can connect to 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 that squatters might hide under addresses you approved. On the plus side, it might be enough to keep less tech-savvy piggybackers away.
  • 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.
  • 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, start by securing them.
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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