How to Protect Your Home from Cyber-Security Breaches

Just a couple of decades ago, only businesses had networks and had to worry about network security. Now even modest homes have wireless networks and multiple connected devices, which has opened up a whole new world of entertainment and information. Unfortunately, it has also made us all vulnerable to hackers and scammers.

You’re Definitely a Target

Many people become victims because they don’t believe they’re at risk. “I don’t have enough money to be a target” simply isn’t true anymore. Taking tens of thousands of dollars from one person often requires planning and hard work, but taking a few dollars each from tens of thousands — or even millions — of people is trivially easy in the internet age.

If you have money at all, or any available space on a credit card or line of credit, it’s a viable target. Also, your money isn’t the only thing of value that hackers can loot. Your personal information, logins and passwords, even the processing power on your computers and internet-connected devices, can all be sold for a profit.

The larger question, then, isn’t whether you’re vulnerable. It’s how hackers and scammers will compromise your devices and home network, and what you can do about it.

Access Equals Vulnerability

The unhappy truth is that every single person and device in your home is a potential vulnerability. Protecting yourself from cybersecurity breaches means doing what you can to reduce the risks:

  • Where people are concerned, making sure everyone in your home understands and practices basic internet safety — from the youngest kids to the most tech-averse seniors — is the biggest challenge. Keeping tabs on visitors is important, too.
  • Hackers and scammers frequently use malicious software to gain access to your devices or network. Sometimes this comes as a “hack,” with outsiders forcing their way in, but often you’ll unknowingly download the software yourself. Scammers often pose as your real-life or social-media contacts to send you bad links, or embed malicious code in seemingly legitimate apps, so this is closely related to “people-proofing” your home network.
  • Your computers and mobile devices are all points of vulnerability, but we often overlook other important devices, including your wireless router and all of the “smart” internet-of-things (IOT) devices that make up a modern home.

Each of those points of vulnerability presents its own challenges, but there are steps you can take to make yourself more secure.

How to Prevent Hacking On Your Router

Your internet service provider (ISP) provides you with what IT people call a “gateway” device, combining a modem that connects you to the internet and a router that shares this access throughout your home. This is the heart of your home network, so it’s the logical place to start.

The routers provided by ISPs are relatively easy targets for hackers, because ISPs use a small number of routers from a handful of manufacturers. Learning how to break into one immediately gives access to lots of others, and it’s that kind of scale that makes hacking worthwhile.

Some easy tweaks to make this harder include the following:

  • Changing your SSID: That’s the name your network shows to the world. If it includes your router brand (D-Link, Netgear) or your ISP’s name, that helps hackers narrow down which router you’ve got and therefore how to break in.
  • Changing the default password: Routers leave the factory with a default username and password that let you log in and change settings. Lists of these are available on the internet for everyone to see, so change yours to something strong (we’d suggest a mix of letters, numbers and symbols that you’ll actually remember. Change it every six months to keep things as secure as possible.
  • Disabling wireless access to settings: Many routers have a setting that will let you connect only through an Ethernet cable, not wirelessly. You can plug in to the router, but most hackers can’t, so it’s unlikely they’ll be able to maliciously change your settings.
  • Disabling the WPS: The Wi-Fi Protected Setup button is the one you can press on the router to let a device connect without needing the password. It’s convenient, but a design flaw in that software standard makes it much, much easier for hackers to break in.
  • Patch Regularly. Software and hardware companies are constantly updating their systems with next-level security technology, so be sure to install patches and updates to your systems and applications and devices to regularly to keep them functioning at the highest possible level. 
  • Setting up a guest network: Most routers will let you set up multiple wireless networks with different passwords. Set one up for guests in your house, so you don’t have to give out your wireless password to casual acquaintances. 

School Everyone on Internet Safety

Even the most secure systems are vulnerable if the people using them make bad decisions. That’s why having everyone on board with internet safety is an important part of home security. This includes how you use your devices outside the home, because malware acquired while you’re out can compromise your network once you come home.

Personal best practices are a broad topic all on their own, but here are a few key points:

  • Never clicking that link: Cryptic “you gotta check this out!” message from a friend? Stern or alarming message purporting to come from your bank or streaming service? Don’t click the link. Instead, contact the friend or business directly to find out if it’s legit.
  • Never plugging in a random, “found” USB stick or SD card: Leaving these devices around is a common hacker trick, and once you plug one in you can be infected. This kind of malware can be installed on a USB charger, too, so be wary of using unknown chargers in public places like airports, hotels, and cafes. Instead, carry your own power bank to refuel your device on the go.
  • Turning off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on your devices: If you’re not using them,turn off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on your mobile devices. Hackers can use both to gain access.
  • Never leaving your devices unattended: If you’re out of the house, or there’s someone in the house you don’t know well or trust implicitly, don’t leave your devices unattended. Gaining access takes only seconds.
  • Using virus/malware checkers: Install and use antivirus and antimalware programs on your computers and mobile devices. They won’t catch everything, but they’ll catch a lot.

One final tip: The FBI releases an annual Internet Crime Report, which explains the most common hacks and scams. It’s well worth reading.

Securing Your Devices

Who would have imagined a few years ago that your fridge could help you create your shopping list or show you the weather forecast? It’s a brave new world indeed, but unfortunately all of those smart devices — convenience notwithstanding — are potential vulnerabilities for your home.

They all require internet access, but like routers they leave the factory with well-documented default settings and passwords. It’s relatively easy for hackers to gain access to them, and from there to potentially penetrate the rest of your network. Things you can do to reduce the risk include the following:

  • Changing the default PIN, password or passcode for each device
  • Updating their software regularly, if you have that option
  • Periodically replacing early-generation devices with newer ones, which typically have improved security
  • Placing your IOT devices on your guest network, rather than your main network.. Your guest network is locked out of network management functions (and is not the network you use to transmit sensitive data like banking or personal information)  – that’s the whole point of having one – so they’re less useful to hackers.

Some Advanced Options

If you’re reasonably tech savvy, or if you’re prepared to put in a bit of effort to gain some peace of mind, there are a few further steps you can take.

One obvious option is to use a paid or free service to test your network for the kinds of vulnerabilities exploited by hackers. If you find vulnerabilities, a quick internet search will tell you how to shut them down or at least minimize the risks.

Buy a new router to replace the one from your ISP, if you have the budget (and the skills to get it up and running). The router you buy will often be newer and more secure than the one from your ISP, and — because it’s not used as widely — less of a target.

Consider using a hardware or software firewall product. These secure your network by blocking unauthorized programs from accessing the communication ports you use to connect with the internet and each other. There are plenty of them available to try, starting with Windows Firewall. You may also have firewall functions built into your router. The best firewall for home is the one you’ll actually use, so try a few and see which one you think you can live with.

Finally, consider setting up a Virtual Private Network (VPN). This is the internet equivalent of those downtown walkways between buildings, where you’re protected from everything outside. It creates a private, secure pseudo-network within the larger network of the internet, so everything you send and receive is kept safe from malicious eyes. Running your home network through a VPN protects everything inside your home, and adding VPN software to your laptops and mobile devices protects you while you’re out.

The Bottom Line

Locked doors and a security system won’t stop every burglar, but they will discourage casual, opportunistic break-ins. Hackers and scammers have the same mentality: They’re looking for the low-hanging fruit. These changes won’t protect you completely, but taking yourself out of the pool of easy victims sharply reduces the risk of a security breach.