Most people who have Internet access at home also have a wireless router, so they can easily surf the Web using their notebook computers, smart phones, tablets and the like.
Unfortunately, a lot of those people don't have a secure network.
Most wireless routers come from the factory with all wireless security features turned off. That makes it easier to set up your home network. But if you don't lock it down later, you might as well be outside shouting about all the business you do on the Internet to whoever wants to listen.
Every bit of data that flows between the router and your notebook computer or other wireless device is broadcast for all to see. Not a good thing. Fortunately, it's pretty easy to lock down your home network.
First, a short primer on the levels of security available. The earliest and most primitive is called WEP or Wired Equivalent Privacy. Anyone with a modest amount of technical knowledge can crack the encryption, so unless you have no other option - that means your router or wireless devices are very old - don't use it.
A better option is WPA, short for Wi-FI Protected Access, and a more advanced version called WPA2. WPA isn't used much anymore because WPA2 provides better security. But if you have older equipment (2006 or older), you might see it as an option. Use it only if WEP is your only other option.
There are more variations of WPA2, but we won't deal with those now. Just remember that's the security level you want.
Now, to lock it down. If you have a fairly modern router, this might be a pretty painless operation thanks to a wonderful new system called WPS, Wi-Fi Protected Setup. Consult the instructions that came with your router to find the WPS button on the router. Press the button (a light generally blinks when activated), and then have your wireless device search for your wireless router. If the device is WPS compliant, it will find the connection and set up a secure WPA2 connection automatically (you may have to enter a short code, which is provided). No complicated setup required. There are no passwords to remember or type. It doesn't get much easier than that.
If that doesn't work, you will have to access your wireless router's setup menu manually to make it secure. The following steps require some technical expertise. If you are not comfortable delving into these settings, stop here and call an expert to help.
Make sure you do this from a computer that has a wired network connection to the router. Do not attempt to change settings on your wireless router using a wireless connection.
Your router should have come with a CD or instructions that explain how to access the settings menu. Some even provide software to make it easy to make those changes.
If you have lost the instructions and are running Windows, you can attempt to access the router's setup menu from the Network and Sharing Center. Get there from the control panel or by right-clicking the network icon in your system tray and choosing "Open networking and sharing center." On Vista and Windows 7, look in the upper right and choose "See full map." The next screen should show you all connected devices, including the router. Right click and choose "View device web page." Clicking that should open a box asking for a name and password.
You should have set those when you first installed the router. If not, opt for common "default" settings like no name, no password, Admin with no password, Admin/Admin or Admin with the router manufacturer (Admin/Netgear). If none of those work, get on the Internet and search for instructions for your brand and model of router, which should provide the default name and password. If nothing works, use the reset button on the router to return it to factory settings so you can access the menu using default settings.
Once you have accessed the admin menu, look for a tab on wireless settings and then choose the security menu. Here's where you will find the WEP, WPA and WPA2 settings. Pick WPA2 personal or PSK and then enter a password you can remember. Save settings.
Once that is done, you will have to access the wireless menu on each of your wireless devices. Find your home network (if you did not give your network a custom name, it is often the brand of the router) and tell your device to connect. It should ask for a password. If the connection doesn't work, double check spelling and try again.
Got it working? Congratulations. Your home network is now secure, which not only keeps your communication private, it prevents freeloading neighbors from using your Internet connection.
While you are in your router's admin menu, be sure to do two other things. Set a new name and/or password for admin menu access and write it down for future reference. This prevents outsiders from getting into the menu and making changes.
If you have not already done so, you also should rename the SSID (Service Set Identifier), from whatever the default is (usually the manufacturer's name) to something else. This name is broadcast by the router and is used by wireless devices to identify different networks.
Be aware that changing the SSID will blow out your wireless network connections. If you change the SSID, you will have to redo the network settings on those devices to get connected again, so it's best to make those changes before making changes to the security settings.
Finally, after all settings have been changed and you are sure all your wireless devices are working, you can provide an additional level of security by turning off SSID broadcast (some routers may not offer this option). This makes it more difficult for outsiders to discover your network.
Now rest easy knowing your home network is secure.
Tony Briggs has been a technology columnist in the Daytona Beach area for more than 20 years.