A shiny new laptop computer can be had for as little as $500, lightning-fast DSL Internet service has dropped to $14.95 a month and a wireless router costs $50 or less.

Welcome to the golden age of wireless, where every day, thousands of average Joes and Janes are making that cordless leap onto the information superhighway.

At least 13.2 million U.S. households will have wireless home networks by the end of 2005, up from 9.1 million in 2004, according to IDC Research, a tech analyst based in Massachusetts. And in May, notebook computer sales outpaced desktop sales at retail stores for the first time, according to San Diego-based Current Analysis.

A broadband connection coupled with a wireless router allows consumers to set up a home office at the dining-room table or outside by the pool. But that cordless convenience could carry a heavy price.

Roughly two out of every three wireless signals are left unencrypted, according to Internet security experts, which means anyone with a laptop and a $20 wireless card could tap into an unsecured signal to surf Web sites or check e-mail.

Some might take it further.

A small subset of computer-savvy hackers has the know-how and gadgets for more nefarious activities.

Through an open wireless connection, a criminally minded hacker could commit virtual identity theft by accessing your computer files, sending spam, stealing your credit-card numbers, even trading child pornography.

Even worse, whoever owns the wireless network could be held liable, said Sacramento County Sheriff's Lt.


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Bob Lozito of the Sacramento Valley Hi-Tech Crimes Task Force.

"If they're doing these things under your identity, it comes back to you," Lozito said.

The mobile nature of these crimes makes them hard to trace.

"We suspect it's happening much more often than it's being reported," Lozito said.

Convicting hackers is even more problematic, though there are exceptions.

One well-known case involved a Lowe's home-improvement store in Southfield, Mich. Two young hackers parked outside, tapped into the store's unsecured wireless network and stole credit-card numbers. They were convicted on federal charges of computer intrusions, damage and fraud.

Last month in Elk Grove, a high-school student faced eight felony computer-theft charges for allegedly hacking into his school's computer system and changing his grades.

When police searched his home, they found aluminum-lined, cylindrical potato-chip containers that some hackers use as crude antennas to help them intercept wireless signals.

Known as "cantennas," they consist of a Pringles can and some hardware worth $5 to $10 but can be used to amplify a wireless signal several miles away.

"They're unsophisticated but reliable, and it's illegal to possess them," said Lozito of the Hi-Tech Crimes Task Force.

It's also illegal to access wireless networks that aren't public. In other words, if you've ever been pleasantly surprised to open your laptop, pull up your browser and have Internet access, that likely means you've just intruded into someone else's unsecured network — and really aren't allowed to be there.

The solution: People should encrypt their signal, says Bret McDanel, a freelance security consultant.

"Most people pull a new computer out of the box, plug it in and if it works, they're done," McDanel said.

The problem: Most computer and wireless router security features are off by default, and it's up to the consumer to enable them.

Wired Equivalent Privacy, or WEP, is a standard security protocol included in routers and should be enabled as a minimum security layer, said Pete Shipley, the computer security expert whose 2001 research was the first to point out that two-thirds of wireless signals are left unencrypted.

Enabling WEP is as simple as reading your router's user manual, Shipley said.

"It's up to me to lock the doors to my house or make sure my wallet is secure in my pocket," Shipley said. "A computer is no different."