Just a bit of harmless wireless broadband theft? Think again

'Snarfing' can cost you money – and worse. James Daley explains how to protect yourself

The spread of wireless internet technology has rapidly changed the way most people use the web. Instead of logging on at the office or in your study, it's now possible to use the internet just about wherever you are.

At home, you can browse your favourite websites while lying on your sofa or in your bed. And if you're on the move, you can surf while in a coffee shop or at the airport, often for free.

But the flip side of the wireless revolution is that it can often prove far too easy to get on to the internet: growing numbers of laptop users are stealing other people's paid-for broadband services without their knowledge.

The practice is known as "snarfing". At its more innocent, snarfing involves people picking up their next-door neighbour's wireless signal, or sitting outside a hotel to hop on to its Wi-Fi network. However, for those with a monthly download limit, even this can prove very costly – especially if your neighbour is downloading several movies a night via your broadband account. For many people, it takes several additional bills before they realise that someone else has been using their service.

"If someone else is piggybacking your broadband connection, or if they've hacked in, their online activities will slow down your browsing, and anything that they download will affect your download allowance," says Michael Phillips of Broadbandchoices.co.uk, the broadband comparison site. "All broadband packages have a download limit of some sort – even those that are advertised as 'unlimited' will have a fair-usage policy."

At the sharp end, snarfing is much more dangerous, carried out by professional hackers who can potentially expose the broadband account owner to fraud, or even implicate them in a crime.

Adam Laurie, a freelance security consultant (www.rfidiot.org), says that open Wi-Fi networks are open to all kinds of attacks. "If you've got a little home network, someone might come along and inject viruses on to your computers or use your PC as a launching point for mailing spam," Laurie says. "Alternatively, someone could be sitting outside your house and hacking into the Pentagon, or downloading child porn, leaving a trail to your computer."

Unfortunately, most wireless routers are still sold with a relatively basic built-in security system known as WEP (wireless equivalent privacy). "WEP prevents people from connecting to your wireless signal, but can be cracked in around 10 minutes using a tool like Aircrack," Phillips says. "Although it will probably stop your average neighbour from piggybacking your broadband, anyone with the inclination to hack in can easily do so."

To protect yourself against hackers, Phillips says you need to change the settings on your computer to WPA (Wi-Fi protected access). Some hardware is not compatible with these more powerful security options, however, in which case you may need to think of getting a new router – or a more modern computer.

Choosing an unconventional password is also important, Laurie says. "Hackers use programs which will try out every word in the dictionary to try and crack your password," he says. "My recommendation when creating a password is to think of a reasonably long sentence, and to then take the first letter of each word. That way, it should be relatively easy for you to remember, but the word itself will be gobbledegook."

As well as using the most up-to-date encryption, Phillips recommends that you make your wireless signal invisible so that it cannot be detected by potential piggybackers or hackers.

Laurie points out that it is not only wireless internet users who are susceptible to snarfing. If your mobile phone has a Bluetooth facility, you may also be vulnerable. Fortunately, most new phones are protected against Bluetooth snarfing, or "blue-snarfing". A number of slightly older phones, though, are risky. Chief among them, says Laurie, is the Nokia 6310i, which was particularly popular a couple of years ago. Others include the Sony Ericsson T68 and R520M, and the Nokia 8910.

Although blue-snarfing is rare, it can prove very dangerous. "I've heard there are people making a lot of money by setting up premium-rate phone lines, and then hacking into phones and getting them to call them," says Laurie. Your contact book and any data stored on your phone could be stolen, too, and conspiracy theorists might be alarmed to know that a hacker could use blue-snarfing to bug your conversations.

Anthony Ball of Onecompare.com, the mobile-phone comparison site, says the easiest way to prevent blue-snarfing is by turning your phone's Bluetooth function off, though Laurie says that you can be protected in 99 per cent of cases simply by making the signal invisible.

At a more innocent level, it has recently become increasingly popular to "bluejack": hijacking a phone's Bluetooth signal to play a practical joke on the user or to send them a personal message.

Independent Partners; Do you need financial advice on your investments, pension or insurance? Book a free consultation with an independent Financial Adviser at VouchedFor.co.uk

Property
pets
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
Sport
football
Finacial products from our partners
Property search
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Money & Business

    Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

    £16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

    Recruitment Genius: Senior SEO Executive

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior SEO Executive is requi...

    Recruitment Genius: Online Customer Service Administrator

    £16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Online customer Service Admi...

    Recruitment Genius: Digital Marketing Executive

    £18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This global, industry leading, ...

    Day In a Page

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk