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 culprit 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 company based in Tempe, Ariz. “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 Kazaa 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 Beyonce 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
Of course, 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 too, says Mark Smetana, previously the 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 -- also poses a potential hazard.
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 kids and 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, antimalware 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.
- 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,’’ says Belzer. “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 computer service company based in Long Island, N.Y. “Turn off the device when it’s not in use,’’ 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.
Kim Boatman is a Silicon Valley, Calif., journalist who writes about security and technology. She spent more than 15 years writing about a variety of topics for the San Jose Mercury News.