Simply following our five easy steps can ensure that no one intercepts your Wi-Fi traffic.

Almost all of us have jumped onto someone else's unsecured Wi-Fi network. Indeed, some people would argue that there's little harm in that if you're just an honest soul looking for an internet connection.

But if you're the owner of an unsecured network, you should be aware that the world's not made up entirely of honest souls - and it's not hard for the dishonest ones to see exactly what you're doing on your network. Sound scary? Here's how to fix the problem.

Q. What are WEP and WPA encryption, and which should I use?

A. The first line of defence for your Wi-Fi network is encryption, which encodes the data transmitted between your PC and your wireless router.

Unfortunately, most routers ship with encryption turned off, and many users don't turn it on, leaving themselves completely exposed. If you haven't already, enable your router's encryption, and use the strongest form supported by your network.

The Wireless Protected Access (WPA) protocol and more recent WPA2 have supplanted the older and less-secure Wireless Encryption Protocol (WEP).

Go with WPA or WPA2 if at all possible, since WEP is relatively easy to crack. (You have to use the same form on all devices on your network; you can't mix WEP and WPA.)

The keys used by WPA and WPA2 change dynamically, which make them nearly impossible to hack. Use a strong password for your encryption key, such as a combination of letters and numbers of 14 characters or more.

If you have an older router that supports WEP only, you'll be safest if you use 128bit WEP keys - but also check the manufacturer's website for a firmware update that will add WPA support. If it doesn't look like an update is likely, consider replacing old adapters and routers with newer models that support WPA.

Look for a router that supports the hybrid WPA + WPA2 mode, which lets you use the stronger WPA2 encryption with adaptors that support it, while still maintaining compatibility with WPA adaptors.

Make sure you change the default network name and password on your router. Doing so will make it much more difficult for hackers to break into your router and commandeer its settings.

Q. If my router has a firewall, why do I need these added security measures?

A. The firewall built into your router prevents hackers on the internet from getting access to your PC. But it does nothing to stop people in range of your Wi-Fi signal from getting onto your network - and with the latest high-performance equipment, your Wi-Fi signal could reach clear down the street.

Without encryption and other protective measures, anyone can use readily available tools to see all your Wi-Fi traffic.

For extra protection, you should run software firewalls on the individual PCs on your network. Some good options are Zone Labs' ZoneAlarm, available as a free download or in the ZoneAlarm Internet Security Suite 2006, and Agnitum's Outpost Firewall Free.

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