It's time for a router emergency call to 911. You knew about hackers stealing our credit cards from retailers, the NSA spying on anyone who picked up a cellphone or writes an email, and ad trackers watching our every move and purchase.
Hang on, we've got a string of recent reports of router vulnerabilities. Backdoors have been found in NetGear and Linksys routers , two of the biggest sellers. A host of other brand names including D-Link, Micronet, Tenda and others have also been the subject of mass attacks that let hackers hijack your browser, produce fake search results, and download malware into all the devices connected to your network.
Yes, it's possible and it's happening. Take a deep breath. Here's what you need to do to secure your router and save money too.
Many service providers give you a cable or DSL modem with a built-in router. These steps still work for combined units.
First, let's protect your router. There are three simple steps.
1) You need to do a geeky thing called "updating the firmware." Every router maker's process is a little different, but here's the basic outline.
First, find your router's program on your computer. Fire it up and it should automatically find your device.
If you don't have a router program, look up your router's manual online and see what the device's IP address is.
Type the number that corresponds to your router's address into your browser and enter the default login password found in the manual.
While you're in the router settings, make sure to change the default login password that came with the router. There should be a button labeled "update firmware." Hit that and go through the process. That will, at least in theory, provide the company's latest protection. (Bonus: It might increase your device's performance, too.)
2) Make sure you turn on wireless encryption and provide a strong password. Strong passwords are a pain, but for your home network you just have to enter it once for each gadget. Just remember to keep it written down in a safe place in case you forget it.
Because computer manufacturers want to make our life more complicated, we are confronted with another blinding array of complicated acronyms when it comes to choosing what encryption to set. Look around for an option to secure the network using WPA2. It's the best protection right now.
It's smart to put in a long and complex password. Again, it's a pain, but it will make your network secure from anything but industrial-strength attacks.
3) Finally, take your router offline and make it invisible to passers-by. In the settings, turn off SSID (or network name) broadcasting. This keeps your network hidden unless you know the name. Be sure to change the network name to something that's hard for someone to guess.
It won't foil the most dedicated bad guys going around sniffing our networks, but it should stop casual hackers and snoops. Jokesters like to call their networks something like "FBI Surveillance" or "NSA Snoops."
Now your router is safe from attacks. Let's save you some money and improve your Internet service.
Check your Internet speed using the handy testers available at Speedtest.net or Speakeasy.net. Do it with your computer plugged in to your modem with an Ethernet cable. Keep notes on the plugged-in speed.
If you are one of those lucky folks who have competing Internet and cable providers in town, the first step is to call your cable company and try to negotiate your bill down. If your download speed is significantly slower than what's promised, start off giving them heck about that.
For cable companies, call and say you're looking at an offer from a satellite provider. If you have a cable modem for Internet service, say that you're looking at a cellular, satellite and DSL offer.
Next, make sure you have the fastest modem available. Most cable customers are paying a per-month cable modem rental. If that's your deal, make sure you've got a DOCSIS 3 modem. Get an upgrade if you don't.
Finally, there's your wireless router. This gobbledegook nomenclature is a pain, but you have to make sure you have one that uses the 802.11n standard. If it's 802.11 b or 802.11g, you should know those are very old standards. The cost of a new "n" one will really be worth it in terms of speed.
If you are buying a new router, consider whether you're going to be getting a new computer or tablet soon. If so, consider paying a little extra for the very newest standard or 802.11ac. That won't help most older computers, but it's a speedy step forward for routers. You'll be glad you did as you get new devices that adhere to that standard.