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How to securely set up a new computer

Follow this advice and protect your computer properly

Many people will be unwrapping their first computer this Christmas. If this is you, welcome to a whole new chapter. PC ownership is rewarding, but it requires vigilance to stave off the sort of threats we’ve outlined elsewhere in this feature.

If it’s a friend or family member getting their first PC – or the first one for which they have primary responsibility – and you’re the nearest thing to tech support they know, good luck. There are bound to be many questions along the way.

Assuming the machine is for someone else, find out what they will use it for. Ideally, you should help them set it up rather than do it for them. This time last year, we put a brand-new PC online with no malware protection to see how long it would last before it got infected – less than 10 minutes was the depressing result. Within 4 hours the PC was unusable.

Start with the machine’s own security and password protection. If it’s going to be used outside the home then set up a password. Next, check the PC’s Wi-Fi settings and switch off automatic connection to available networks. If it’s a secondhand computer, also run a full malware scan.

Security software

Choose a free or paid-for antivirus product. New machines often come with a trial version preinstalled, although they don’t have to use this. Turn to page 139 for our Top 5 security charts. You’ll also find a useful round-up of our recent security software reviews.

Most security software identifies malware by comparing files against a list of known threats. This list is frequently updated with new signature files, so the software must be updated periodically. The best security products will also detect malware that’s not on this list based on its behaviour or user intelligence.

Internet security suites include several other useful tools besides an antivirus, including a firewall and anti-spam.

Browser choice

Some web browsers are more secure than others, although none is perfect. Many inexperienced users don’t know there are alternatives to Internet Explorer, plus good reasons other than security to try them out. Find out what type of browsing they’ll mostly be doing and suggest an appropriate web browser.

Once they’ve chosen their weapon of choice its security settings must be configured. Again, ask them what they’ll be doing with the machine in order to decide which settings should be allowed. Make these changes with them, just in case they need to alter the settings later or on a different machine.

Programs and memory

Software updates aren’t all about patching security holes – some can improve compatibility or help prevent freeze-ups. However, there’s no point in keeping the antivirus up to date if they leave holes in their programs and OS for malware to enter through.

If the computer owner intends to use USB memory sticks or plug in other portable storage devices for backup (which is essential if they’re to avoid losing their precious data), show them how to scan these peripherals for malware.

Social media

Facebook is likely to pose an ever-increasing threat to security in 2012. Given its vast number of members, Facebook is a big target for criminal gangs.

Whatever their privacy settings, tell the new computer owner never to put anything on Facebook that they wouldn’t mind everyone seeing – and that means their boss and their mother.
For advice on Facebook security and privacy settings, head to our website at tinyurl.com/7ymrnks.

Also talk about what other online services they will use and inspect the settings on those sites too.

Mobile phones

If it’s a mobile phone- rather than PC-shaped gift sitting under the Christmas tree, note that the same security measures must now be taken on phones. See here for advice.

Resources

Get Safe Online is a good place to point the novice web user.

Major security vendors, such as Symantec, F-Secure, AVG, Bitdefender, Panda, Trend Micro and Webroot, offer some very good advice. Just remember that they’re not independent.

When spam and phishing messages land in their inbox, encourage novice users to play detective. Googling the text within an email should tell them whether it’s to be avoided quickly enough. Snopes.com is another useful site.

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