Borrowing your neighbor’s unencrypted Wi-Fi connection has become a common practice in American society. In a recent Wakefield Research poll, commissioned by the Wi-Fi Alliance, 32 percent of respondents admitted to tapping into a Wi-Fi network that wasn’t theirs – up from 18 percent in a December 2008 poll.

Some 40 percent of survey respondents also said they would be more likely to trust someone with their house key than with their Wi-Fi network password. More than one quarter of those surveyed said sharing their Wi-Fi network password feels more personal than sharing their toothbrush.

The findings underscore general populace’s murky understanding about the risks associated with not locking down their home Wi-Fi systems.

“Most consumers know that leaving their Wi-Fi network open is not a good thing, but the reality is that many have not taken the steps to protect themselves,” said Kelly Davis-Felner, marketing director for the Wi-Fi Alliance. “Consumers can usually activate Wi-Fi security protections in a few simple steps, but much like the seatbelts in your car – it won’t protect you unless you use it.”

Perhaps the most stunning evidence that many homes and businesses don’t take the simple steps to encrypt Wi-Fi networks comes courtesy of Google. Last May, Germany complained about Google’s global fleet of StreetView cars taking photos of street scenes for Google Maps, but also harvesting unencrypted data moving from Wi-Fi networks.

Google subsequently admitted that it had harvested 600 gigabytes of personal Wi-Fi data from homes and businesses in 33 nations over a three-year period.

What’s more, the average Internet user also remains muddled about his or her exposure while using free Wi-Fi hotspots that now are everywhere.

Whether mooching off of your unwitting neighbors, or using a complimentary Wi-Fi hotspot connection found at Starbucks, Panera Bread, McDonalds, Barnes & Noble and other major retailers, you are exposing yourself to another kind of risk. A computer user sitting nearby can easily eavesdrop as you email, network socially and shop online. It has become trivial for a low-level hacker to grab your account logons and payment card information.

” I don’t want to blow this out of proportion,” says Davis-Felner. “I run a bigger risk in a hotspot of somone coming up from behind me and stealing my purse from under my chair. That being said, we use Wi-Fi more than ever as our primary Internet connection, for sensitive matters.”

The bottom line: You’re assuming a small risk, but the outcome could be very, very bad, she says.

Since most public hotspots leave security protections turned off, you should, as a rule, never transmit any sensitive data at a public hotspot. Here are some other best practices, supplied by the Alliance:

  • Set home Wi-Fi networks for WPA2™ security – This is the latest in network security technology. It controls who connects to the network and encrypts data for privacy.
  • Look for Wi-Fi CERTIFIED™ products – Wi-Fi CERTIFIED devices are required to implement WPA2 security.
  • Look for devices with Wi-Fi Protected Setup™ – With an action as simple as the push of a button, new devices can be added to an existing network securely.
  • Create strong passwords – Ensure that your network password is at least 8 characters long, does not include any dictionary words or personal information, and is a mix of upper and lower case letters and symbols.
  • Turn off automatic connecting – Many products such as mobile phones and notebooks are set to connect to any available wireless signal. Turn this off, and only connect to and from networks and devices they are familiar with.

Source: USA Today