The poll conducted for the Wi-Fi Alliance, the industry group that promotes wireless technology standards, found that among 1,054 Americans age 18 and older, 32 per cent acknowledged trying to access a Wi-Fi network that wasn't theirs. An estimated 201 million households worldwide use Wi-Fi networks, according to the alliance.
The same study, conducted by Wakefield Research, found that 40 per cent said they would be more likely to trust someone with their house key than with their Wi-Fi network password.
For some, though, leaving their wireless router open to outside use is a philosophical decision, a way of returning the favor for the times they've hopped on to someone else's network to check email or download directions while away from home .
"I think it's convenient and polite to have an open Wi-Fi network," said Rebecca Jeschke, whose home signal is accessible to anyone within range.
"Public Wi-Fi is for the common good and I'm happy to participate in that - and lots of people are," said Jeschke, a spokeswoman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that takes on cyberspace civil liberties issues.
Experts say wireless routers come with encryption software, but setting it up means a trip to the manual.
The US government's Computer Emergency Readiness Team recommends home users make their networks invisible to others by disabling the identifier broadcasting function that allows wireless access points to announce their presence. It also advises users to replace any default network names or passwords, since those are widely known, and to keep an eye on the manufacturer's website for security patches or updates.
People who keep an open wireless router won't necessarily know when someone else is piggybacking on the signal, which usually reaches 300-400 feet, though a slower connection may be a clue.
For the Buffalo homeowner, who didn't want to be identified, the tip-off wasn't nearly as subtle.
It was 6:20 a.m. March 7 when he and his wife were awakened by the sound of someone breaking down their rear door. He threw a robe on and walked to the top of the stairs, looking down to see seven armed people with jackets bearing the initials I-C-E, which he didn't immediately know stood for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"They are screaming at him, 'Get down! Get down on the ground!' He's saying, 'Who are you? Who are you?'" Covert said.
"One of the agents runs up and basically throws him down the stairs, and he's got the cuts and bruises to show for it," said Covert, who said the homeowner plans no lawsuit. When he was allowed to get up, agents escorted him and watched as he used the bathroom and dressed.
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