Some of the greatest risks are a result of simply using your internet connection, for you could visit a fraudulent or otherwise malicious website that steals personal information (see Phishing) or download a file that is infected by malware. However, even when you are performing other tasks, such as typing a Word document, or are away from your computer entirely you are still at risk. As long as your computer is connected to the internet there is the possibility of being hacked. The good news is that there are things you can do to protect yourself and significantly reduce that risk.
First, I would recommend replacing the standard Windows XP firewall. This is a recommended step regardless of whether you are using a wireless router or not. No firewall is impenetrable but the XP firewall has several weaknesses when compared to other protection on the market, with its primary deficiency being the general lack of outbound protection. In short, that means that if you do become infected and the malware attempts to "phone home" for whatever reason (including to send the hacker your personal information) it will not alert you or do anything to stop it. Instead, I would recommend using the free ZoneAlarm basic firewall, which can be downloaded by clicking here. The default settings are fine and it will automatically disable the Windows Firewall to prevent possible conflicts.
It is also important to note that depending on which router you have there may be a hardware-based firewall built in. Hardware-based firewalls are considered superior to software firewalls because they stop the access attempt even before it reaches your computer and they are harder to circumvent. (Whereas software-based firewalls can be disabled by certain types of malware.) Regardless of this, I would still recommend having a software-based firewall, such as ZoneAlarm, for an extra layer of protection.
In addition to a firewall you should make sure you have adequate antivirus and anti-spyware software and keep it up-to-date. Norton and NOD32 are two of the top-ranked antivirus providers with McAfee, TrendMicro, and many others following closely behind. For spyware protection I rely on Webroot's SpySweeper, though you do not need to spend the money on it. Instead, you can use Windows Defender for real-time protection and Ewido (now known as AVG Anti-Spyware) for weekly scans, a combination that is quite successful and won't cost you a cent. Remember, you can build up a wall around your network but it won't do much good if the intruder is already inside the gates, so perform weekly scans religiously.
That said, a wired connection is always safer than a wireless connection to the internet for the simple reason that with a wireless connection someone could sit in the basement of the house next door and work on cracking the encryption or uncovering your password. With a wired connection, on the other hand, they would have to have physical access to your computer network in order to attempt that. That should not deter you from using a wireless home network but instead encourage you to take additional steps to protect yourself. These include:
1.) Encrypt the connection, preferably using WPA (or even WPA2) due to the widely-exploited weaknesses of WEP. If some devices are not compatible with WPA, though, be sure to enable WEP...some protection is better than none.
2.) Set a strong password on the router, using a combination of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols. The longer and more complicated it is the harder it will be fore someone else to guess or crack it using brute force methods.
3.) Change the internal IP subnet, router name, and password regularly. The more you do this the more you will keep 'outsiders' off balance. You will have to update each computer afterward but it is well worth it.
4.) Enable MAC filtering so that only the wireless devices you specifically allow have access to the network. It is possible to spoof (forge) a MAC address but every road block helps.
5.) Disable SSID broadcasting. This does not prevent your network from being attacked but it prevents the network's presence from being 'announced' to all wireless receivers within range, effectively removing the large arrow pointing to your house.
6.) Keep an eye on the router logs for unauthorized access attempts, particularly if you suspect something. The sooner you see unauthorized access attempts the sooner you can take countermeasures to prevent that party from succeeding.
7.) If all of your wireless devices use 802.11g disable 802.11b on the router. This has a very limited effect, but it would prevent others with older hardware from attempting to access your network.
The exact methods of adjusting all of these settings depend on the router and operating systems in use, but you should find illustrated instructions in your owner's manual or, alternatively, on the manufacturer's website in their Help section.
Aside from that I would like to make a few other comments. First, it is important to be aware of Wake-on-Lan (WOL), which, if supported by your motherboard, would potentially enable someone to 'wake' your computer remotely via an network connection. That means that after you have shut down and gone to bed someone could start your computer and accomplish their goals before the sun rises. Thus, even if you turn your computer off at night or before you go away for any length of time you should also consider shutting down the modem and router. It's not mandatory, but it is the only way to ensure the security of your network during periods when you do not have a watchful eye on it.
Second, never install or use P2P software such as Limewire. Aside from the legal issues associated with most of the content being pirated it opens up a door for others to access your computer, something that would potentially make all of your hard work go to waste. It is far better to download directly from the author or use download sites such as CNET's own download.com.
Finally, keep in mind that if someone else uses your network that you may be held responsible for whatever they do, be it download pirated content or hack another computer. That is added incentive to keep your network secure and limit who you let use your computers and/or network. (Never walk away and leave your desktop unsecured to attend to other guests unless you trust them.)
Best of luck in maintaining a secure wireless home network! John Wilkinson
P.S. While it does not pertain to your home network, I would like to leave you with one last piece of information: Never do online banking on submit/access other personal information while you are using a wireless connection other than your own. There is no guarantee of security and some even set up hotspots with the sole purpose of using it to acquire the personal information of others.
Submitted by: John W.