Checklist 63: Your Guide to Securing Your Parents’ Computer
During last week’s episode, our discussion centered around talking to your parents about the importance of computer security, and how to educate them on essential steps to take. This week, we’re going to move beyond the parents and look at their computers ourselves —with their permission of course! After your pep talk about strong passwords, you should hope to find their computer protected with a password you can’t guess.
While it’s easy enough to explain how to do things like create strong passwords and to run security software as a matter of best practice, some of the more basic operations can be difficult to navigate. Rather than deal with the frustration of explaining every single mouse-click, it’s faster to do it yourself. When you do, you’ll also have the peace of mind that comes from knowing all the configurations and settings are just right. To help you complete this process quickly while being thorough, today’s discussion will include:
- Checking the basics
- A web-browser check-up
- Installing & configuring security software
- Securing Wi-Fi and locking down IoT devices
- Setting up remote access capabilities for future convenience
Let’s start with the first steps you should take when you sit down at your mom or dad’s computer.
Checking the basics
When you arrive to look at your parents’ computers, start by asking them if they have any questions or concerns from recent times they’ve used the machines. Ask if there’s anything they have a problem with, or if there are specific issues that have been troubling them during use. When you don’t have a lot of time to spend troubleshooting, this is a fast way to begin zeroing in on the areas that need your focus the most. If nothing comes to their minds, great! However, it’s likely that they’ll have a list of questions. Alternatively, make a list and try to prioritize the items on it by the amount of time and attention they’ll need. After you wrap up this conversation, ask them to log in to the machine so you can have a seat and get started. Be sure you have the appropriate admin permissions to work on the device.
If you think of yourself as a doctor trying to diagnose something wrong with the machine, where’s the most logical place to begin? By taking some vital signs, of course. Check on essential stats like the amount of available hard drive space, the total amount of RAM in the machine, and if the device has had a reboot recently. If your parents complain that the computer just runs “slow” but can’t point to any specific problem, it might be something you can find here.
Often, a slow computer has nothing to do with malware or major system problems. It’s usually just running out of memory or hard drive space, whether from running too many apps at once, going too long between reboots, or not clearing out old files. Start your process with a reboot just to be on the safe side — you’d be surprised just how often pushing the “reset” button solves the mysterious problem your Dad keeps complaining about. If there’s not enough hard drive space, look for ways to free up space. Delete unnecessary Internet files like the cache, and see if there is superfluous software taking up space. Perhaps it’s time to invest in an external hard drive for storing surplus family memories?
Check the exterior of the computer, especially the cooling vents and fan ports. Use canned air to blow away excessive dust, but do not blow air directly into the case through the fans — you’ll just be sending that dust into the interior of the machine. If possible, blow outward from inside the machine to clear the dust on the fans. When computers can’t effectively cool down, their operations can slow down accordingly. A computer clogged with dust for months or even years often suffers from a performance drain because of inadequate cooling, so clean thoroughly.
Now let’s return to the operating system — let’s make sure everything is up to date. Check for updates for the main system as well as all the software your parents use on a regular basis. If you have time, download and install the latest versions of everything you can find. This process can take a while, so you may prefer to prioritize just the most important apps (such as web browsers, email, etc.) for security purposes.
The last thing you ever want to hear when you get a call from your parents is “The computer is dead.” Hardware failures happen, though, even for well-kept machines. Ensure that your parents have some backup system they can rely upon to protect their files. You could use Apple’s built-in Time Capsule for a local option, or you can use an external USB hard drive to store the files. For an added layer of safety, you might want to choose a remote backup service instead, such as iCloud Backup, to keep their files accessible at all times.
Don’t take the step of making backups without explaining what you’re doing. Explain that a local backup is handy, but it isn’t a total guarantee of redundancy. A USB hard drive, for example, could still end up destroyed in a fire. Offsite backups, like those in iCloud, mean there’s always a copy of the information somewhere out there for you to retrieve. Maybe you want to implement both? Discuss what they’d like to do for preserving their data. Once you have a plan of action, double and triple check to make sure you have configured Time Machine or your chosen backup software properly. A backup is no good if it doesn’t catch the necessary files or doesn’t run at all!
Giving your parents’ web browser a check-up
With the basics addressed and, hopefully, resolving the “it just runs slow” complaint, you can shift your attention to the software your parents probably use more than anything else: the web browser. From getting on Facebook to see how the grandkids are doing to checking their email and the news, your parents want to be able to surf the web just like everybody else. It’s best to make sure that there are as few opportunities for things to go wrong with their browser as possible.
Begin, as always, by looking to see if all their browsers are up to date with the latest versions. Browsers receive regular security updates to harden them against the latest attacks coming from the bad guys. While you’re doing this, look for the “Automatic Updates” setting and enable it. This way, your parents don’t need to take any action to keep their browsing experience as secure as possible.
While you’re in the settings, root around to see if you can uncover any browser add-ons or extensions. Were there a ton of toolbars when you loaded up the browser? If you do find extraneous items being loaded, use this as an exercise to point them out to your parents, continue the education process so they can see for themselves. This is a great chance to explain to your parents, as gently as can be, that they do not need to click on and download everything they see on the web. Discuss how many toolbars can be a way for adware to get on their machine, while they can also seriously slow down your browsing experience. Let them know it’s okay and even preferable to avoid custom apps and extensions offered by sites all around the web. They aren’t necessary.
It will help to provide them with some extensions that do improve their browsing experience, though. Installing a reliable ad blocker or a Safari Content Blocker will help to reduce the number of potentially harmful ads they see. Besides sanitizing their web experience from most ads, it will also make their browsing smoother and more enjoyable. Show them a list of some other useful extensions, like those for checking stocks or the weather, and install reputable versions that you know won’t serve up malware through the browser.
Finally, if necessary, look to see if any of the plug-ins for the browser need updates. These plug-ins could include Flash (though in some browsers, like Chrome, it’s built into the software itself) or Silverlight, the latter of which is often used for online streaming video services. Now could also be a good time to clear out the cache and perhaps the cookies to give your parents a clean slate. With the password manager they should have installed already there won’t be a problem logging back in to all their favorite sites. With all these items checked off your list, you can close the browser and move on to the next item on your list.
Setting up security software
Now we reach one of the most essential steps in the process. Check to see if there is any anti-malware program installed. You know as well as we do that without one, there’s no way to guarantee your safety from all kinds of nasty programs your parents don’t need. If you don’t find any software installed, it’s time to go ahead and download some. Choose a trusted provider; remember, if you choose a free solution, select one that comes from a well-known company with a strong track record. This way you can at least trust that the software will receive definition updates on a regular, reliable basis. A subscription-based program is also a good option.
If your parents do have anti-malware software installed already, poke around in its settings. Does it have automatic updates enabled? When was the last time its definitions were updated? Make sure everything in the software has the latest available version of everything, from malware definitions to the program itself. Once you’ve either installed new software or brought their current installation up to date, it’s time to run a scan. If you have the opportunity to do so now, set it up to run a full system scan. It might take a while, but it’s the best way to start from a place where you know nothing is wrong with the computer. When the scan finishes, fix up anything it presents as an issue.
One other thing which may not be obvious – check to see if there are multiple anti-malware programs installed and running! Not only can they compete for resources and potentially slow the machine down, but they can also interfere with the legitimate operations of each other or the machine. Sometimes people forget that they have anti-malware installed and end up installing something new. It’s good to see that they’re trying to keep the system secure, this is a good opportunity to help keep things clean and running smoothly.
Now, make sure the software to run scans on a regular basis. Even if you trust your folks not to forget to run the scan, why shift the burden onto them in the first place? Let the program take care of business every night or every few days with automatically scheduled scans. If anything does hit your parents’ computer in the interim period or when you aren’t available to help, this should catch it and take care of the problem. With automatic updates enabled, your parents don’t even have to do anything to know they have protection — it just works.
We mentioned earlier that your parents should have a password management app installed. We covered the exact reasons for that in last week’s episode, but if you haven’t set them up with one yet, now is a good time to do so. While there are free options out there, commercial products like 1Password work very well and provide excellent security. Some commercial options even work across devices, so unified password management is available across your Mac and iPhone. They’re well worth the cost to keep your parents’ passwords safe and all in one place. Of course, the iCloud Keychain has made great strides in its usability and versatility over the past year. If you don’t want to pay for another subscription service, this built-in option is just fine too.
Securing Wi-Fi and IoT devices
Network security is just as important as having good malware protection and an up-to-date web browser. Plus, maybe your parents have decided to jump on board the “smart home” bandwagon and have started to accumulate all kinds of Internet of Things devices. Securing all these devices is important — but it can be especially tricky in some circumstances. Be careful. With some of these things, you should only start messing around with the settings if you know what you’re doing. Otherwise, you could make a problem for yourself — then you’ll be the one calling tech support!
Always begin by reading the manuals for Wi-Fi routers, modems, and IoT devices when you have them available. If your parents don’t have them stashed in their kitchen junk drawer, do a Google search. You can often find a PDF file of the manual to review that way. Instructions vary a lot between these devices, so read up to know what you’re doing before you open your first settings page. With wi-fi routers, menus and settings are usually user-friendly, so it should easy enough to start there.
Only your folks and their guests should be able to use their wireless network. You don’t want some stranger driving by to hop on the network for fun, so secure it with strong encryption. That means using the current security standards, like WPA2. If your parents have used the same old router for years and years now, it might only be capable of the long-since-broken WEP standard. If that’s the case, it’s time for them to invest in an upgrade to something safer.
While you set up the new network and its password, don’t bother checking the “Hide Network Name” setting. It offers very little in the way of security benefits while making it harder for regular users to join the network.
When it comes to IoT devices in the house, look for ways to upgrade the firmware they use. Infected and hacked IoT devices were behind most of the recent DDoS attacks that have affected the web. Any of the devices on your parents’ network, whether they’re security cameras, Smart TVs, or light bulbs, should have the latest firmware version. While there’s no 100% guarantee against a hack, this creates a stronger defense by ensuring the latest security patches are in place, which will deter the bad guys dramatically.
If any of their devices, IoT, router, or otherwise, use passwords for login purposes, be sure to change the default settings. Most of these devices have default combos like “admin” and “password.” If they are never changed from the defaults, it’s easy for an attacker to gain access without a fight. Keep the new login information secure where you or your parents can access it, if needed. Once you’ve done all this, it should be all you need to do to improve the network security in place around the house.
Consider the benefits of remote administration
Before you log out and turn the computer back over to your parents, spare a moment to think about the potential of setting up remote access capabilities. You won’t always be able to make it over to the house when your parents need computer help — in fact; sometimes you might be very far away. Trying to troubleshoot over the phone can be a nightmare even for experienced users; you probably know that from your own tribulations with tech support. When your parents are always sending you questions and concerns about their computer, this is a good way to solve the problem.
With the touch of a button, you can access their computer from your own machine and troubleshoot the problem firsthand. It’s much easier than playing the “what do I click on?” game over the phone. Setting it up on a macOS machine is straightforward, too — check out Apple’s guide on how to do that on this page. Just be sure that you don’t leave remote access enabled all the time. That’s an easy way for an attacker to find an open way into the machine, and that’s not what you want. Instead, set it up so there is an easy shortcut your parents can click to start a remote session. Then you can step in and see what’s wrong.
Let your parents know this is a tool for use just between the two of you; they should never let anyone else take control of their machine. There’s more than one scam company out there that tries to trick people into allowing “technicians” to gain remote access so they can “fix” some mysterious issue. Meanwhile, it might be a good idea to consider supplying them with a way to learn more about computer security on their own. After all, it’s like the old saying about teaching a man to fish. You can fix a problem today and help your parents temporarily, or you can teach them to problem-solve on their own to be secure for life.
While you’re doing all these things, you’re going to end up with some downtime — maybe a lot of downtime, in fact. Updates need to download, software needs time to install, and security scans can take a while to run to completion. Don’t just sit in front of the machine scrolling through the apps on your phone; use that time wisely. Now is a good time to strike up a conversation with your parents about something tech-related. It’s always smart to check in and see if they have any questions, or if they’ve noticed anything strange recently. You might want to use this opportunity to ensure your parents are up-to-date with the latest and most devious online scams.
Remember how you should give your parents some reliable resources to turn to for learning about computers and all the things that accompany them? Use this time to show them and talk to them about some good material. There are tons of resources online that you can set up in their browser bookmarks — perhaps you could even point them towards this podcast! With episodes every week and extensive show notes, it’s easy to consume our content no matter your level of experience. Learning about computers and how to use them safely is a process that never ends. Giving your folks the resources to participate in that process is important.
That’s all we have to cover today. Hopefully, you’ve got a good sense of what to do with your parents’ computers and how to do it right. Have any questions you’d like to ask us? Maybe this subject gave you an idea for another topic you’d like to hear us hit, or raised some concerns you’d like addressed. We’d love to hear from you. Send in your questions and comments to Checklist@SecureMac.com.
Thanks for joining us for another episode of The Checklist. We’ll be back again next week with the holidays on the horizon!