5 ways to hack-proof your router

How to stop bad guys from invading your home network

Published: April 23, 2014 03:45 PM

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Old firmware and substandard passwords can expose your home network

Your home router may be the least secure device in your home network. Unless you've paid attention to its settings after it was installed, there's a good chance some of these devices may be leaving you wide open to hackers. And don't expect help from the security and antivirus software you've installed on your home computers. Because your router (or router/modem if the model you've got combines the two) is a separate device that sits between your computer and the Internet, none of your security software protects the router.

Here's just how dangerous a hacked router can be: In 2012, the Brazilian National Computer Emergency Response Team reported that by sweeping the Internet for vulnerable modems, hackers had located and compromised 4.5 million modems in Brazil that had been running outdated software. The attackers were able to exploit the software vulnerability to obtain each modem's administration password and then compromise that device to direct users to fake banking websites in order to steal their banking credentials and money. On one of the computers the criminals had employed to carry out the scam, authorities found a list of 14,000 victims.

While no device can be made 100 percent hack-proof, there's no reason to leave your router, or router/modem, any more vulnerable than necessary. Here are five ways to made it a far tougher target.

Note: To change any of the router's settings as described below, you must first type the router's local IP address (normally into your web browser's address window. Then sign in to the router's administration software with the user name and password you set up when you first installed the router. (You did set those credentials up, didn't you?)

1. Change the router's administration user name and password

This is the most important setting to change. Anyone who can sign into your router as an administrator has virtually free reign over your home network. And many routers come with either no user name and password, or a pair that's widely known. In fact, websites such as RouterPassword.com make it trivial for a hacker to find out your router's default settings.  Set up a user name and password that are as strong as the one you'd use for a bank account.

2. Use a strong network name

If you have a wireless router, it contains the name of your wireless network, also known as an SSID. If the SSID hasn't been changed since the router was installed, and it's set to something obvious such as the name of the router's manufacturer (e.g. dlink, Linksys, or Netgear), your router is an easy mark for hackers because they know the most common passwords each brand of router uses. Use one of the router's settings screens, similar to the one shown below, to change the SSID to a string of characters that gives a hacker no clue as to the brand of router or, for that matter, who you are or where you live.


3. Update the firmware

All routers have built-in firmware that should be updated periodically. Otherwise, hackers can take advantage of known flaws in older versions of the firmware. To make sure your router's firmware is up-to-date, go to the router's advanced settings screen, which should be similar to the one shown below.

Then click on Firmware Upgrade to get to the screen where you can update the firmware if necessary. (The screen shown below is the one used by routers made by Actiontec).  

4. Disable remote administration

To make sure that a remote hacker can't easily take control of your router, go to the screen where you can enable or disable remote administration. Make sure remote administration is disabled. (To get to this screen, you may need to go through an advanced setting s screen similar to the one shown earlier).

5. Use WPA2 encryption

To secure all the information your router transmits wirelessly, you must have encryption enabled, which requires authorized users to known a special password. But older types of encryption, such as WEP, which are often still used on routers, are known to be insecure. Using your router's advanced security settings on screen similar to the one shown below, make sure that your security encryption is set to WPA2, which is strong.

For more ways to get the most out of your router, see 5 things you didn't know you could do with your router.

—Jeff Fox

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