Do Your Family Members Put Your Computer at Risk?Kim Boatman
As a computer user, you might never throw caution to the wind by opening suspicious emails or clicking on questionable links. But that doesn’t mean your computer isn’t at risk for security threats, and the culprits might be sitting at your family dinner table.
It’s not just a matter of protecting your teen or tween from troubling situations online. You also need to protect the family computer from your teen’s or tween’s risky online behavior. “Teenagers are a big target for hackers,’’ says Ken Colburn, president of Data Doctors Computer Services, a Tempe, Ariz.-based company. “The highest risk group of Internet users is suburban households with high speed Internet connections and teenagers.”
Behavior that Jeopardizes Your Computer
Teens love content sharing at online sites such as Limewire, Kaaza and YouTube, but your computer could be infected with viruses and other forms of malware from these sites, says Tara Belzer, owner of Friendly Computers in Charlotte, N.C. “While you are downloading the newest Beyoncé song, someone is downloading something from you,’’ says Belzer. “You are inviting others into your computer.”
Wily bad guys can use that access to collect your sensitive personal information off your computer files, says Belzer. “Many, if not most, files have malicious code embedded in the background of that free song.”
Adults Take Risks Too
All the finger-pointing shouldn’t be directed at young people. Facebook’s popularity is skyrocketing with adults, and Facebook applications can threaten your computer’s security, says Mark Smetana, owner of a CMIT Solutions computer support and service franchise in Hayward, Calif. Your mother-in-law clicking on a popup or another family member secretly visiting X-rated sites pose a potential hazard, as well.
Even if you don’t share a computer with family members, their love of instant messaging or downloading movies could be affecting your computer’s operating speed on a shared network.
What You Can Do
Experts recommend taking these steps to protect your computer -- from your own family:
Establish an acceptable-use policy. Set expectations about computer use, communicating how you want family members to use the computer, says Smetana. A policy won’t guarantee that a family member isn’t tempted to download a free song, but education goes a long way toward changing behavior.
Keep the family computer in a public area. This familiar advice is often geared toward protecting your child from potential online threats, but it also allows you to monitor behavior that could place your computer at risk.
Use strong antivirus, anti-malware protection. Don’t cheap out, cautions Belzer. Buy a high-quality product and run regular scans.
Set up user accounts. Create a user account for each family member. Place passwords on the adult accounts but not on the kids’ accounts, advises Belzer. In Windows Vista, simply type user account in Search, then click on User Account. If you use a Mac OS, choose Apple menu>System Preferences and click Accounts.
Use parental controls. Savvy kids often find their way around parental controls, but it doesn’t hurt to make the effort, says Smetana. When you establish a user account, you can set controls. You can also buy commercial products that monitor and control your child’s behavior online.
Back up often. “Backing up is a must,’’ Belzer says. “Too many times in my business I see people get very upset when their hard drive crashes and they lose all their precious pictures and documents.” Keep a copy of critical information secure elsewhere.
Use an external hard drive with a power switch. If you store sensitive information on an external hard drive rather than on your computer, you’ll minimize your risk, says Thomas K. McCabe, president of HeroTechs Inc., a Long Island, N.Y.-based computer service company. “Turn off the device when it’s not in use,’’ says McCabe. To secure your information on the external hard drive, create a new directory for secure data, says McCabe. Click on Sharing under Secure Folder Properties and make sure sharing is turned off. Under Security Options, remove permission for everyone on the new directory but yourself. Go to the directory Properties and make the folder hidden. Finally, search Folder Options on your computer, select View and make sure you select “Do not show hidden files and folders,’’ says McCabe.
Finally, it helps if you’re aware of the warning signs that your computer has been compromised. “If you see a ton of music, if your cursor is now a pretty bird or there are smiley faces -- emoticons -- in your emails, you can be sure your computer has been downloading items for some time,’’ cautions Belzer.
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