Over those Internet connections, the suspect used the electronic routing information for a local college's bank account to pay for online pornography and to order sex-related products, Breeden said. The man was caught because he inexplicably had the products delivered, in his name, to his actual address, Breeden said. When officers came to arrest him, they found his computer set up to connect to a neighbor's wireless network. Breeden said the suspect, Abdul Wattley, had pleaded guilty to charges of theft and unauthorized use of a communications network and been sentenced to two years' probation.
In another recent case, the principal of a Tallahassee high school had received death threats by e-mail, Breeden said. When authorities traced the messages to a certain Internet Protocol address and went to the household it corresponded to, Breeden said, "Dad has his laptop sitting on a table and Mom has another laptop, and of course they have Wi-Fi, and they clearly didn't know anything about the threats."
Cybercrime has been known to flourish even without Wi-Fi's cloak of anonymity; no such link has been established, for example, in the recent high-profile data thefts from ChoicePoint, Lexis/Nexis and other database companies.
But unsecured wireless networks are nonetheless being looked at by the authorities as a potential tool for furtive activities of many sorts, including terrorism. Two federal law enforcement officials said on condition of anonymity that while they were not aware of specific cases, they believed that sophisticated terrorists might also be starting to exploit unsecured Wi-Fi connections.
In the end, prevention is largely in the hands of the buyers and sellers of Wi-Fi equipment. Michael Coe, a spokesman for SBC, the US' No. 1 provider of digital subscriber line connections, said the company had provided about 1 million Wi-Fi routers to its customers with encryption turned on by default. But experts say most consumers who spend the US$60 to US$80 for a Wi-Fi router are happy just to make it work at all, and never turn on encryption.
"To some degree, most consumers are intimidated by the technology," said Roberta Wiggins, a wireless analyst at the Yankee Group, a technology research firm in Boston. "There is a behavior that they don't want to further complicate their options."
That attitude makes life easier for tech-savvy criminals and tougher for those who pursue them.
"The public needs to realize that all they're doing is making it harder on me to go find the bad guys," said Gilhooly, the former Secret Service agent.
"How would you feel if you're sitting at home and meanwhile someone is using your Wi-Fi to hack a bank or hack a company and downloads a million credit card numbers, which happens all the time? I come to you and knock on your door, and all you can say is, `Oops,'" Gilhooly said.