It’s the digital equivalent of mooching a cup of sugar, only without asking. Some 32% of respondents to a recent national survey admitted borrowing a neighbor’s unencrypted Wi-Fi connection. That’s nearly double the 18% who said they borrowed Wi-Fi in a 2008 poll.

“The reality is that many consumers have not taken the steps to protect themselves,” said Kelly Davis-Felner, marketing director at the Wi-Fi Alliance, a non-profit trade group that commissioned the surveys.

Sharing an open Wi-Fi hookup might seem neighborly. But a nosy neighbor could use eavesdropping software to monitor your online haunts. A free, easy-to-use eavesdropping tool called Firesheep has been downloaded more than 1 million times since last year.

“With Firesheep, almost anyone can effectively hack into your Facebook, Twitter and other accounts,” says Randy Abrams, director of technical education at anti-virus firm ESET. “Almost anyone has the skill to use Firesheep to be a nosy neighbor.”

You can repel moochers and snoopers by taking a few simple steps while configuring your wireless network. “But much like the seat belts in your car, you won’t get protected unless you use it,” Davis-Felner says.

Muddled perceptions about Wi-Fi security persist. “People who don’t understand the technology simply have faith,” says Chet Wisniewski, senior security adviser at network security firm Sophos.

The widespread, seemingly innocuous use of public Wi-Fi hot spots doesn’t help as it tends to convey a false sense of security, he says.

Many airports and giant retail chains — including Starbucks, McDonald’s, Panera Bread and Barnes & Noble — supply free, unencrypted Wi-Fi hookups, and have no plans to change. Their goal is to make it as easy as possible for customers to get connected.

But tools such as Firesheep make it simple for low-skilled hackers sitting nearby to swipe your account logons and payment card numbers and to conduct criminal activity.

Pedophiles, for instance, tap open Wi-Fi connections to download child pornography. “Even worse, in Southeast Asia, open Wi-Fi points are being used by terrorists to communicate and to remotely trigger bombs,” Wisniewski says.

Source: USA Today