Family-proof your PC

Published Date
07 - Feb - 2007
| Last Updated
07 - Feb - 2007
Family-proof your PC

Every family has at least one novice whose risky computer behavior is asking for trouble. You know who we mean: the P2P addict who can't resist those dodgy downloads; the spouse who clicks on suspicious pop-up ads and updates without a second glance; or the cousin who returns a borrowed laptop brimming with malware.

You've got two options: become a paranoid curmudgeon with motion-sensor alarms rigged to your PC, or establish smart security precautions and educate your family members and friends about exploring the Net safely. We've got four basic steps to set you on the latter path.

Though we wish our methods were foolproof, our guidelines can't guarantee total freedom from malware. Criminal hackers are constantly hatching new plans to get around our best defenses. However, following these steps to mitigate your risk will go a long way toward reducing your whole family's exposure to threats.

Step 1: Create multiple user accounts
A good first step in preparing your PC for shared use is to create separate user accounts for every individual accessing your Windows machine. It is especially true if there have been problems in the past with a household user who has acted less than knowledgeably online. The advantage of multiple user accounts is that you, the über-administrator, can limit other users' abilities to install programs and make system-wide changes, a move that could prevent your guests from executing tainted programs. To sweeten the deal, each account holder can craft their own visual style, adding a password-protected login to help maintain privacy.

In most versions of Windows, you'll simply click the Start menu, open the Control Panel, and select "User Accounts". For each intended user, click "Add" in the Users tab, enter a name, and then select the user type--either power-user status, which allows administrative rights, or restricted-user status, which does not.

Make sure the "password at login" feature is enabled, so everyone who accesses the computer will be required to provide his or her username and password. The nuisance of compelling returning users to log in after each idle period is easily outweighed by the security benefits of maintaining multiple accounts. Besides you can always adjust your idle-time settings to minimize the frequency of login.

Step 2: Dominate that security checklist
The saying "a best defense is a good offense" is especially true in regard to computer security. Nasty viruses and malware will slink into your network by any means possible, so skipping even one security opportunity is like locking your doors but leaving the windows open.

Our Security Starter Kit can walk you through the process of creating a multifaceted security plan with a firewall, virus and spyware scanners, and real-time protection. Protection doesn't have to be expensive, and our collection of favorite free security programs proves it. For instance, the free AOL Active Security Monitor provides a diagnostic scan of your computer's security suite and suggests methods for improvement.

If you can afford the protection, you might consider bumping up your security level by adding one or two paid solutions that offer features such as on-the-fly protection and advanced spyware removal, which you'll rarely find in free products. Among the subscription offerings, Trend Micro PC-cillin is a CNET member favorite.

Step 3: Download software for safe browsing
User accounts and firewalls will help screen out much of the pestilence, but they can't keep a young child, for example, from clicking an unsafe link. If your tykes or teens know how to surf and search, and can't resist trying out free games or music downloads, you may want to exert greater control than you would for an adult relative or neighbor. Depending on your situation, there are various strategies for regulating computer use that will serve you well in combination or alone.

A. Use McAfee SiteAdvisor--Identifying online threats is one method for avoiding them. McAfee SiteAdvisor for Internet Explorer and Firefox displays green, yellow, or red icons on Web pages of tested sites based on three criteria: download quality, the number of e-mails sent per week, and the safety of outgoing links. Full explanations of the ratings are available by clicking the SiteAdvisor icon on individual Web pages, or by hovering over the icon on a Google or Yahoo search results page.

B. Change browsers--Generally speaking, Mozilla Firefox and Opera are considered safer browsers than Internet Explorer. They both include pop-up, virus, and spyware blocking, but it should be noted that Firefox's expanding user base is beginning to attract targeted exploits because malware and virus authors want to affect greater numbers of users. Regardless, the two browsers are still considered more secure options, and cutting out IE will quickly reduce the number of threats pounding at your door.

C. Play in the sandbox--IE's market dominance attracts a heavy level of threats, but users who prefer to stick to the most popular Web browser know they can try a sandbox program like GreenBorder Pro with Safe Files. GreenBorder's software works by sheathing browser interactions in a protective bubble, so your activities remain in a sealed-off environment detached from a regular Net interaction. SafePods similarly quarantines the browsing experience and lets users wipe each session's tracks.

D. Use filters--Filters and monitoring programs such as OnlineSafetyShield and Optnet PC Parental Control Software can typically be set to block problem destinations like pornography and gambling sites, and/or URLs for specific sites. The other parental filters in our library sport different features, some of which are more appropriate for children than adults.


Step 4: Educate, educate, educate
Though it may sometimes seem as such, the family and friends who share your computer aren't actually trying to infect your machine. Chances are, they're not fully aware of the forms threats can take. Steps 1 to 3 can take you only so far--now that you've established your user accounts and protective software, the most important thing you can do to keep your system safe is to enlist the help of your guest users.

It's a good idea to keep everyone using your computer informed of common threats and delivery methods for malicious malware. Dirty links can be embedded nearly anywhere, and infected file attachments and stealth downloads are always only a click away. For a quick and easy method of learning the different types of threats, consult our recently updated  Glossary We've also written up guidelines on how regular users can identify (and avoid) suspicious Web sites.

If it all seems like a lot for computer novices to remember, you might consider creating a safety checklist to hang by the computer. You may thank yourself later.

Team DigitTeam Digit

All of us are better than one of us.