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How to protect your Wi-Fi accounts from hackers

HOUSTON – Take a quick look around.

How many Wi-Fi enabled devices do you have? Chances are you have a smartphone, a tablet, a laptop, plus Wi-Fi enabled devices that run your heat and air, lights, home security systems, TVs and even personal assistant devices and baby monitors.

Wi-Fi connects all those digital devices we depend on to the internet. If your digital world isn't protected, Wi-Fi hackers can sneak into your digital devices to steal your personal and financial information, as well as other accounts, in some cases even take control of your digital devices.

In one such recent attack, a local family heard a man on their baby monitor threatening to kidnap their son.

So how do you protect against hackers? First, you need to change the default user name and password on all the Wi-Fi routers in your home, and regularly update the routers, according Assistant Professor Chris Bronk, with the College of Technology at the University of Houston.

"Patching devices routinely is important. There's some work to this. It's not convenient," Bronk said.

Check your router manufacturer's website for information on securing the model you use.

Bronk said it's also very important to put password protection on guest access to your home Wi-Fi. This is a security precaution many of us skip to make access easier for friends, but it also makes it easy for hackers.

Also critical for securing your network according to Bronk, "Every time you put a new device on your Wi-Fi you should make sure that it is protected in some way. If it has a default password on it you need to change it because a default password can be looked up and people can write programs and sweep across millions of addresses very quickly and find the devices that haven't been updated."

Just these steps can lock out a lot of hackers. But Bronk said you can make it even harder for hackers to invade your home. He recommends using up-to-date Wi-Fi routers. "WPA3 is the latest. WPA2 before it has some technical issues. But the earliest protocols for these, these Wi-Fi security systems have been broken. There are shortcuts that are now known and publicly accessible on how to break early versions of a Wi-Fi security, the kind you would find on a home router."

When it comes to using Wi-Fi outside the home, Bronk said it is OK to use free public sites.

"The good news is that increasingly when we browse the internet via a connection someplace -- a coffee shop whatever -- our browser is becoming more and more effective at communicating to a website using some sort of security protocol that protects that traffic. Your vulnerability level is managed on a laptop by your browser, on a cellphone by security protocols built into the phone," he said.

To increase your protection. Use two-step authentication when signing into your accounts.

"For anything that's critical like banking, your personal email, anything you think would be bad if manipulated or stolen or hacked by someone else," Bronk said.

Two-step verification works like this: Step one is your user name and password for the account. The second step adds added a biometric verification like a fingerprint or iris scan, or uses an app to send you a push alert, text pin code or gives you a call to confirm you are you before allowing access to the account.