Thieves target home networks

A Snohomish County prosecutor last week issued a renewed warning to folks who get wireless computer gifts under the Christmas tree.

Linking into unsuspecting people’s Internet connections is a new, high-tech wrinkle in the growing crime of identity theft, warned deputy prosecutor Halley Hupp, who heads his office’s unit that specializes in that crime and fraud.

A case in point is that of a woman who was sentenced last week for using her home computer to connect with a neighbor’s wireless router. She illicitly hooked with the neighbor’s Internet account to order about $5,000 in goods on a stolen credit card.

Donna Marie Corbin, 29, of Lynnwood was sentenced to a year and a half in prison. When she gets out, she will have to spend an equal amount of time undergoing drug treatment under a special sentencing option for some drug addicts.

Corbin connected to the Internet using a neighbor’s wireless router, which can transmit and receive information for hundreds of feet, and ordered merchandise using a stolen credit card. She had the items delivered to her own doorstep, which led to her arrest.

“If properly done, using someone else’s Internet access via a wireless router can allow an identity thief to remain hidden,” Hupp said.

A wireless router is a device that can connect two or more computers to the Internet using a broadcast signal. It’s possible for someone to pirate access to the Internet using such a device from a distance of 500 feet or more, Hupp said. Those who use a wireless router should remember that is a tiny broadcast station, he said.

In the Corbin case, police were able to follow an Internet protocol (IP) address to the neighbor’s apartment. Every computer attached to the Internet must be assigned an Internet protocol address that is linked to an account.

The trail led to Corbin, who had the merchandise delivered to her address.

Instead of using their own home computer, it’s safer for the thieves to link to the Internet through somebody else’s. That way they leave fewer tracks that can be followed by police, Hupp said.

At any given time, thieves can drive through neighborhoods checking a laptop to see if they can get Internet access through a stranger’s Internet connection, he added.

The prosecutor advised people using wireless routers to read the instructions thoroughly and set up a password using a combination of letters and numbers. Use a customized name for the router’s name, which is not your own name, and doesn’t contain other personal information or date of birth, he advised.

In addition, people should disable signatures to the outside world that your router is broadcasting. That way, it is less likely that strangers will be able to tell that you are using a wireless router. Many routers have a “visible” or “invisible” feature, he said.

Hupp said it’s not wise to assume that when you pull that computer out of its box that it is secure.

Corbin got a break from the judge when he gave her the special sentencing alternative instead of 21/2 years straight prison time.

Her Everett lawyer, Guss Markwell, argued that she stole to feed a methamphetamine habit. She has solid family support, Markwell said, and is as good candidate for rehabilitation.

Reporter Jim Haley: 425-339-3447 or jhaley@heraldnet.com.

Protect your computer network

Do not assume your computer or router is set up to protect you. Take these precautions:

n Read the instructions for your wireless router and computer.

n Change the password from the default and use a combination of characters and numbers.

n Make sure the firewall features on your computer and router are active.

n Do not advertise the existence of your router. Disable broadcasting and turn on the “invisible” feature if it has one.

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