Editor's Note: Article updated on May 8, 2009. Original article published September 8, 2006.
Every family has at least one member whose risky computer behavior is asking for trouble. You know whom we mean: the kid brother 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 riddled with malicious software. You have two options: become a paranoid misanthrope with motion-sensor alarms rigged to your PC, or take a few minutes to establish these four security precautions. They're not foolproof against the most persistent of malicious software magnets, but these basic tips should give novices some ideas.
Step 1: Create multiple user accounts
A no-brainer, perhaps, but creating multiple user accounts is one of the surest ways of restricting a guest's risky activities without breathing down their neck while you supervise each mouse click. Families can generate an account for each member, an especially proactive move if there have been problems in the past. Enact it thus and you, the uber-administrator, can limit others' capabilities to install programs and make systemwide changes, a move that could prevent your errant relations from executing tainted programs. To sweeten the deal, each account-holder's capability to customize their own desktop could help mow down weedy sibling rivalry. Consider adding a password-protected log-in to help maintain privacy.
Make sure the "password at login" feature is enabled, so everyone who accesses the computer will be required to provide their 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 logging in anew. Here's another tip--setting up an unpassword-protected guest account on a laptop means your friends can borrow it to easily get online or use core Office functions, while the password protection on your account acts as a deterrent.
Step 2: Master your security checklist
How will a nasty virus slink into your network? Whichever way it can. Our Security Starter Kit offers up our top picks for freeware firewall, antivirus, spyware scanner, and encryption apps. It's also worth checking out Avira AntiVir Personal, which has quickly become the most popular app on Download.com at the time of writing, and is an Editors' Choice award-winner to boot.
Although free security is wonderful, don't overlook premium antivirus suites, especially if your setup has been susceptible to malicious software outbreaks in the past. Most suites bump up your security level by adding features like on-the-fly protection and advanced spyware removal, which you'll rarely find in free products. They'll generally run you $40 for a yearlong subscription. The beauty is, you can try them out first to narrow down your choice. For lists of editor and user favorites, look here and here.
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 (or careless adult) 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 a more responsible relative or neighbor. Here are some strategies to try in combination or alone.
A. Scan your search results--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, and on Google and Yahoo search results. You can click the icon for a full ratings explanation, or see it by hovering over the icon on a Google or Yahoo search results page. AVG LinkScanner takes a different road to achieve the same end.
B. Change browsers--While Internet Explorer 8 has increased its security measures, its position as the king of the browser jungle makes it an infections magnet. Mozilla Firefox and Opera, and Google Chrome are generally considered safer, at the very least since most malicious software perpetrators won't waste their time coding for such slivers of market share. These browsing alternatives have security in place. However, it should be noted that Firefox's expanding user base is beginning to attract more targeted exploits, and Chrome and Opera aren't immune to flaws.
C. Corral those kids--If your children are young enough not to concern themselves with safe surfing, but old enough to still do damage, it's worth looking into programs like KidZui, a child-friendly browser that only makes available content that's been white-listed by the program's editors. For more leniency in a young'un's browsing destinations, try apps like Norton Online Family and Family Cyber Alert, just two in our collection of monitoring software.
Step 4: Preach it
Though you may be wary of becoming a nag or a drag, reminding the friends and family who use your computer of your basic rules is better than spending hours mopping up their mess. Steps 1 to 3 can take you only so far--after establishing your user accounts and protective software, the most important thing you can do is enlist the help of your guests. Teaching children, especially, to identify and avoid traps can help keep them from becoming repeat offenders. We list some different types of threats used over the years in our Security Glossary, and have written up guidelines on how regular users can identify (and avoid) suspicious Web sites. Good luck.