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Got a smart home device? Here's how to protect your privacy

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By BRIAN PIA, ABC 33/40 I-Team Investigator

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBMA) - More and more of us are turning our houses into smart homes.

We’re buying up devices that make life a lot more convenient -- things like Amazon Echo, Google Home and Wi-Fi-connected security cameras.

Privacy experts say most devices are secure.

But the risks come with the security of the Wi-Fi system in your home and how you use the smart home devices.

Jeff Maxwell has been turning his house into a smart home

“Alexa, turn the hallway light on.”

Over the last few months, Jeff Maxwell has been turning his house into a smart home. He uses Amazon Echo, Google Home, and his smartphone to make everyday life much more convenient.

Like that time when Maxwell and his family were headed to the airport to catch a plane to Orlando for a family vacation. That’s when his wife asked him if he had locked the door to their house. He hadn’t.

“I said, ‘I don’t know.’ So, I grabbed my phone, looked on there. Sure enough, the door was unlocked. So, I armed the alarm and we kept on going,” Maxwell said.

Is your Wi-Fi router secure?

Privacy experts say you’re at risk from hackers if your Wi-Fi router that helps operate smart home devices isn’t secure -- especially if you have security cameras.

Pam Dixon is executive director of the World Privacy Forum.

“If you have security cameras in your home, they can literally look through your security cameras,” Dixon said.

Dixon’s team bought and tested Bitdefender BOX and gave it high marks. It’s a Smart Home Cybersecurity Hub that protects Internet-connected devices from malware, stolen passwords, identity theft and spying. Price: about $200 to $250 depending upon where you buy it -- plus an annual $99 subscription fee that’s waived the first year.

“I like the tool. I think it’s very effective,” Dixon said. “For someone who really has a lot of smart devices in their home, it’s worth the calculus of adding that small fee.”

Consider changing Alexa's name

As more and more people connect their homes, or even buy new smart homes, here are a few other recommendations from the World Privacy Forum:

  • Change Alexa’s name so others can’t use it
  • Delete sensitive recordings -- like health searches or requests for financial information
  • Read the privacy policies for all smart devices
  • Call the manufacturer’s customer service department with questions and concerns about privacy
  • And while you’re on the phone, check to make sure your smart home devices use end-to-end encryption, so no third parties can decipher the data being communicated or stored

Maxwell has a secure network to protect his data privacy. Meantime, he wants to control more and more features in his home with his smart devices.

“Do you really need it? No,” Maxwell said. “But once you live with it, you’re not going to want to go back.”

An Amazon Echo can cost anywhere from $40 to $160. Google Home: $40 to $110 online.

They’re affordable, convenient, and that’s why they’re becoming so popular. They’re now in millions of homes.

One final recommendation: You can also protect your privacy and make things as secure as possible by reading those user manuals.

The more you understand about what the devices can do, the safer you’re going to be, and the better the experience.

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