What should I do if I think my neighbor is stealing my Wi-Fi?

Legal options if someone is free-riding on your Wi-Fi.

Question

I live in a suburban neighborhood with houses on either side of me. About a year about, I installed a Wi-Fi network in my home so that I could use my laptop and iPad anywhere I wanted in the house. The speed was great. But lately, I’ve noticed that it’s been much slower – videos take longer to buffer, downloads are slower, and Web pages take longer to load. I’ve been told that this might happen when a neighbor is logging onto my network and using it for himself. I think I have a pretty good idea of which neighbor is doing this. This hardly seems fair, since I’m stuck paying the whole bill. Can I sue him? What should I do?

Answer

Many Internet Service Providers (ISPs) allocate a certain amount of bandwidth to each household. If your neighbor, or anyone else, begins using your allocated bandwidth, you might experience a slowdown in service.

What should you do if you see this sort of slowdown? First of all, be sure you have all the facts before you go running to court. Call your ISP and see if it's aware of a broader issue on the network. Make sure your own internal network is properly set up.

Next, you should immediately secure your Wi-Fi network. Securing your wireless network means that someone would need a password to use your Wi-Fi. You now seem to have an “open” network with no password, which is why neighbors or passersby can use your Internet free of charge.

The easiest way to prevent this sort of digital trespassing is by locking down your Wi-Fi. There are plenty of guides online for doing this provided by the  federal government  and  trade publications. If you prefer, you can likely have your ISP or computer manufacturer walk you through the process over the phone.

In terms of your legal rights, the liability for “stealing” Wi-Fi varies by state. So far, cases against Wi-Fi thieves tend to be difficult to prove and enforce. Even if you could prove that your neighbor was “stealing” your Wi-Fi, your damages would likely be small – perhaps just a few hundred dollars, representing the fees you paid to your ISP. The costs of filing a lawsuit would quickly outweigh any potential rewards you would receive.

Your better bet, in this situation, is to begin a conversation with your neighbor. It’s very possible that your neighbor did not realize what he was doing, or that the neighbor's computer automatically connected to an open (unsecured) Wi-Fi network. A reasonable neighbor would immediately agree to stop logging into your network and, if you ask, might even agree to pay you a small amount for your trouble, given your months of slow Internet service.

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