5 router settings you must change to protect your network

While the world is focused on the coronavirus, malicious hackers, cybercriminals and scammers are pushing out their own form of malware. IBM’s X-Force reports that COVID-19 related spam is up a whopping 14,000% over the last few weeks. Fake coronavirus cures, phony stimulus checks and convincing robocallers are competing for your money.

Tap or click here to see what these scams look like so you can avoid them.

But it could very likely get a lot worse. Consider if a state or hacking group wanted to launch a coordinated cyberattack. It’s a lot easier now than it was a few months ago. In the rush to stop the spread, we left our IT-protected corporate confines and started in earnest working from home.

People starting using video conference programs with no regard for security and providers had no clue how to handle the influx of new users. ‘Zoombombing’ entered our lexicon. Tap or click here for the setting you must change to secure your meetings.

The cybersecurity naive began hooking up new gear, signing on to work networks, swapping files, installing apps and programs. Many folks don’t have a clue about basic security settings. And I haven’t even mentioned the kids’ role in all this digital security pandemonium.

Don’t be complacent. Just like we had to work together to flatten the curve, we have to work together to secure our digital lives. It starts with your router.

First, check your router’s admin page

Before you start, make sure you can get into your router’s administration console; this is where you manage your router’s settings, including password management and firmware updates.

First, make sure your computer is connected (either wired or wirelessly) to your router, open a web browser and type in the router’s IP address.

The IP address is a set of numbers, and the default depends on your router’s manufacturer. The common ones are 192.168.1.1, 192.168.0.1 or 192.168.2.1.

If you don’t know your router’s IP address or password, it’s on the internet. Here is a site that gives you both in a matter of seconds. Note: Hackers know about this site, too!

1. Select the best encryption

Criminals love unsecured home Wi-Fi networks. Securing your Wi-Fi network can also shield you from unwelcome connections that may be using your network for illegal activities.

This is why it’s important to protect your Wi-Fi network with strong encryption. If you are required to enter a password to connect to your Wi-Fi, you already have some encryption enabled on your router.

There are different types of Wi-Fi encryption, and you have to make sure you use the most secure one you can.

The most widely-used Wi-Fi security protocol right now is still Wi-Fi Protected Access 2 (WPA2) encryption. However, this standard is over a decade old, and it is already susceptible to serious security vulnerabilities like 2017’s KRACK attack.

If you’re shopping for a new router, look for one that supports the newest security standard, called WPA3. These models have just started rolling out.

Every router has a different menu layout, but you should be able to find encryption under the “Wireless” or “Security” menu. You’ll have a number of encryption options; if you still have an older router, you want to select one that starts with “WPA2”. If your router is not WPA3 compatible, then “WPA2-PSK AES” is your best option right now.

However, if you have older Wi-Fi gadgets, you might have to select the hybrid option “WPA2-PSK AES + WPA-PSK TKIP” to get them working.

Never choose Open (no security), or if it is using WEP, change the security setting immediately. An open network will make it easy for someone to steal your Wi-Fi, and the older WEP security is easily hacked.

If the only encryption options your router has are WEP or WPA, tell your router to check for a firmware update. Look in your manual for the instructions.

Don’t have your manual anymore? Try ManualsLib or ManualsOnline, which both have hundreds of thousands of manuals, from routers to refrigerators to anything else you might need.

If there’s no firmware update or your router updates but you’re still stuck with WPA or WEP, it’s time to buy a new router. These encryption methods are too unsafe to use, plus it means your router is probably more than 7 years old.

TECH ADVICE IN YOUR INBOX: Get tech tips you can trust with free email newsletters from my desk to your inbox. Tap or click here to try The Current, my new ad-free newsletter.

2. Pros set up an additional separate network

A great tactic is to put visitor devices on a separate network. You do this by setting up a completely different Wi-Fi router or enabling your router’s “Guest Network” option, a popular feature for most routers.

Guest networks are meant for visitors to your home who might need a Wi-Fi internet connection. They can connect without gaining access to the shared files and devices within your network.

This segregation will also work for your smart appliances, and it can shield your main devices from specific Internet of Things attacks.

To avoid confusion with your primary network, set up your guest network with a different network name (SSID) and password. Please make sure you set up a strong and super-secure password on your guest network, as well. You still won’t want crooks and strangers mooching off it for security reasons.

Newer routers do this segmentation automatically. With this feature, it allows users to put Internet of Things appliances on a separate network, shielding your central computers and other personal gadgets from attacks.

With this virtual zoning of your network, you can still allow all your smart appliances and hubs to communicate with each other while keeping your main computing gadgets safe in the event of an Internet of Things attack.

Also, if you’re worried about “wardrivers,” or people roaming around looking for Wi-Fi spots to hack, you can disable the broadcasting of your network and your guest network’s name (SSID) entirely.

3. Use the free parental controls

To shield your kids from inappropriate sites, most routers have built-in content filters, parental controls and time-based restrictions.

To enable these filters, visit your router’s administrator page or app again and look for a section called “Parental Controls” or “Access Controls.” Here, you can choose what type of sites to disable access to, set the schedule when the filters are in effect and set curfew hours for certain gadgets.

You can even set filters for specific IP and MAC addresses. The downside of this method is the inconvenience, plus it takes a bit of technical skill to pull this off. The good thing about this is that you’ll have a map of all your connected gadgets and their corresponding IPs.

To take this a bit further, turn on MAC (Multimedia Access Control) filtering. With MAC filtering on, you can specify which MAC addresses will be allowed to connect to your network at certain times.

Note: MAC addresses can usually be found in the gadget’s settings, label or manual. Look for a set of 16 alphanumeric characters. (Here’s an example of what a MAC address will look like: 00:15:96:FF:FE:12:34:56 )

4. Turn on the VPN

You have likely heard of a VPN (Virtual Private Network), which is an excellent way to boost your online security and privacy.

With a VPN, your gadget’s IP address is hidden from websites and services that you visit, and you’re able to browse anonymously. Web traffic is also encrypted, meaning not even your internet service provider can see your online activity. It’s a good way to hide your internet tracks from would-be snoops.

VPN services are typically accessed via software. I use and recommend ExpressVPN. Full disclosure, they are a sponsor on my national radio show and listeners get 3 months free.

Some newer routers can be configured with VPN capabilities straight into the router itself. Instead of protecting each gadget protected with its own VPN service, your router will protect every connected device.

Routers with this capability have open-source router software support (such as DD-WRT), and they can be configured to use services like OpenVPN.

Currently, there are a variety of open source and OpenVPN capable routers to choose from, but the most popular models are the Linksys AC3200 and the Netgear Nighthawk AC1900.

5. Turn on and test the firewall

One valuable tool that can protect your router from hackers is a firewall. With it, even if they manage to know your router’s location and IP address, the firewall can keep them from accessing your system and your network.

Almost every newer router has built-in firewall protections in place. They might be labeled differently, but look for features under your router’s advanced settings like NAT filtering, port forwarding, port filtering and services blocking.

With these controls, you can configure and specify your network’s outgoing and incoming data ports and protect it from intrusions. Be careful when tweaking your port settings though, since a wrong port setting can leave your router vulnerable to port scanners, giving hackers an opportunity to slip past.

To check if your router’s firewall and your ports are secure, you can use this online tool for a quick test.

BONUS TIP FOR EXTRA KNOW-HOW: Tech how-to: Set up multiple desktops to keep work and home separate

Multitasking can feel overwhelming when working from home. You’ve got your work tabs and personal tabs all running at once, not to mention all the new work-related programs you have to use.

Worse still is if you share a computer with the family. But you can separate work from home programs by using multiple desktops.

Tap or click for a walkthrough of all the steps. It’s surprisingly simple!

What digital lifestyle questions do you have? Call Kim’s national radio show and tap or click here to find it on your local radio station. You can listen to or watch the Kim Komando Show on your phone, tablet, television or computer. Or tap or click here for Kim’s free podcasts.

Copyright 2020, WestStar Multimedia Entertainment. All rights reserved.

Learn about all the latest technology on The Kim Komando Show, the nation's largest weekend radio talk show. Kim takes calls and dispenses advice on today's digital lifestyle, from smartphones and tablets to online privacy and data hacks. For her daily tips, free newsletters and more, visit her website at Komando.com.