How to keep your family computer safe and secure

If you have a single computer that your entire family uses, that system will be exposed to an elevated number of threats. With everybody accessing different websites and services, opening their own emails and messages, and downloading different files and programs, there is a substantial risk of infection with viruses, malware, and other dangerous exploits.

Because of the shared nature of a family PC, errors made by any one user could put your entire family’s data at risk. Under the worst circumstances, this could lead to financial losses, or personal data being hacked for identity theft. This is concerning because kids are far more likely to make the mistakes that lead to these kinds of problems.

In this guide, we look at the best ways to keep a family computer safe. Some steps involve educating your family to ensure that everybody understands the risks. Others involve the need to monitor and supervise the use of the computer. Finally, we will walk you through some of the most important services, applications, and extensions you should use to ensure your computer is safe and secure.

Operational Security

With so many people using a single-family computer, it is essential for all those users to have a strong understanding of the kinds of threats they may be exposed to. Education is the key.

In this section, we will walk you through the primary threats and how to manage them. Remember, this information needs to be shared with your entire family - so they understand how to be more secure online.

Phishing emails and messages

Phishing emails and messages are designed to trick internet users into clicking dodgy links that lead to malicious websites. Phishing emails come in a variety of different styles, but they always have one thing in common - they are designed from the ground up to gain the recipients trust and to fool them.

Everybody that uses a family computer needs to be aware of phishing emails and messages, because they could arrive at any time. If someone in your family receives a phishing email and they accidentally click on the link, they could be forwarded to a web page that steals their logins, passwords, or other sensitive data. In the worst circumstances, they could even cause the home computer to become infected with malware.

Below we have highlighted the kinds of phishing emails your family needs to look out for:

 

Unsolicited emails

If an email arrives out of the blue and you don’t know who the sender is, always treat that email with suspicion. If you have any concerns, delete the email at once, and never ever click any links or download any attachments in the email or message.

 

Emails from apparently legitimate sources

Just because an email appears to come from a legitimate source (or an online service you do use) doesn’t mean it is safe. Hackers make emails look official on purpose, and they often fill those emails with links to cloned versions of legitimate websites that are designed to trick you into handing over your data or downloading dangerous exploits. If you receive an email that seems to be from a service you regularly use, do not click on the link in the email. Instead, head over to that service inside your browser to ensure you are really going to the website or service in question.

 

Emails that make you frightened

If an email makes you scared, it is possible that email is a phishing attempt. Phishing emails are often designed to make the recipient believe an Amazon or eBay purchase has been made on their account. This kind of fake email is designed to trigger fear to make the victim panic-click the link in the email. Unfortunately, the links in phishing emails will forward you to a webpage that infects your machine with malware - or that steals your login credentials if you enter them into the fake login forms.

 

Emails that make you excited

This is another common phishing technique that leverages people’s emotions against them. This kind of phishing email uses special offers, the promise of a prize, bargain prices on luxury goods - and ever the promise of freebies - to make the victim follow a dodgy link.

 

Too good to be true

If something seems too good to be true, it probably is, and you should ignore the email. If you feel certain that the offer is real, head over to the service in question by searching for it in your browser manually. The deal might be real if the genuine service is advertising it on its website, however, it is vital that you never follow the link in an unsolicited email. These links could be a hoax that forward you to a cloned version of a legitimate website designed to steal your payment details and personal information.

 

Targeted emails that seem to be specially designed for you

This is called SpearPhishing, and it is a technique that cybercriminals use to target individuals using social engineering. These kinds of emails are designed to interest you personally by focusing on subjects or topics that interest you, your hobbies, or even your employment sector. Remember, if an email arrives that is highly interesting to you - this could be because it is designed to trick you into following a link or downloading an exploit.

 

Social media messages

When using social media, people have a tendency to end up accepting friend requests from a broad cross section of people. Having a wide circle of friends online can be fun, but it can also lead to friendships with fake accounts or hackers. Even the account of a genuine friend or contact could eventually send you a phishing message - if that account falls victim to hackers.

 

Romance scams

Much like emails that contain special offers and free gifts, social media accounts that belong to attractive members can be used to lure victims into clicking links. If an attractive stranger befriends you on social media, or via any other online service, be wary if they provide you with links or downloads as these could forward you to malevolent sites or cause you to download malware.

Safe surfing

When we randomly search the web for the things that interest us, it is possible to run into scam websites and services. Fake or cloned websites may attempt to steal your data, and if those sites contain a lot of pop-ups and adverts, you could wind up clicking on something that causes spyware or other malevolent exploits to download onto your computer.

Pornography websites are known to be a hotbed for exploits, so if you have a pubescent teenager who often uses the family computer, you could wind up with problems.

Other common activities, such as streaming pirated content on unofficial websites, or downloading free music and films via BitTorrent, can also potentially lead to infection with malware. For more information, please read our guide on how to Torrent safely.

Surfing the web safely is not an exact science, but there are things that you can do to ensure your family is safer:

  1. Block access to specific websites and content using parental locks and filters to stop children accessing pornographic websites and other potentially dangerous websites.
  2. Turn on Safe Browsing Mode in Chrome or Firefox. Safe browsing ensures that many malicious websites are flagged as you browse the web. However, please know that using Safe Browsing in Chrome requires you to send browsing data to Google - which is not considered great in terms of privacy. The best way to ensure privacy and Safe Browsing is to use Firefox instead of Chrome. Firefox is a much more private browser and well worth ditching Chrome for!
  3. Pay for a legitimate streaming service to stop your children streaming on illegal sites.
  4. Teach your family to always close any pop-ups and never click OK or accept anything - no matter what the message says. Pop-ups that inform you that your system has a virus are a common exploit used to trick victims into clicking links or accepting downloads. These must be avoided at all costs.
  5. Always check the URL bar to see if the website is legitimate. Strange addresses are a dead giveaway for malevolent or cloned sites that belong to hackers.
  6. Keep an eye open for the HTTPS prefix and the padlock to the left of the URL bar. HTTP sites do not protect your data in transit with end-to-end encryption. This lack of encryption means that hackers could intercept your data. It is essential that you enter no personal information on sites that are HTTP.
  7. Know that HTTPS sites are not necessarily safe. Hackers sometimes set up malicious websites using HTTPS. Unfortunately, this kind of website will allow a hacker to steal your data if you enter it. This is because entering data on that website will provide it directly to the cybercriminal who runs the site. To summarize: HTTPS does not necessarily mean that a site is safe - only that your data cannot be intercepted by third party eavesdroppers when you use it.
  8. Double check the legitimacy of a site. There are hundreds of thousands of websites online and many of them have been set up by cybercriminals, hackers, and opportunists. If a website is selling goods that are extremely cheap - or is suspicious in any way - please ensure that it is legitimate before entering any personal information. You can check the legitimacy of a website by using Google Safe Browsing - or any other service designed to check whether consumers have previously complained about the business. If you are still unsure, then look closely at the website: is there bad spelling? Or other inconsistencies that show the site in unprofessional or untrustworthy?

Supervision

If you have a family PC, it is important to provide some level of supervision whether you have older or younger children. Many gaming websites aimed at young children are filled with spyware, adware, and other malicious exploits. If you permit them to search Google themselves for keywords like ‘kid’s games’, it is possible that they will stumble across these kinds of malicious websites.

To stop this from happening, set up a separate Windows login for your child with restricted settings, create a supervised user account in your browser and turn on SafeSearch to ensure all adult content is filtered out. Turn on Safe Browsing and teach your children to always ask permission before accessing websites, rather than letting them search Google themselves.

By doing these things, you ensure that your kids only use sites approved by you. For more information on how to keep kids safe online, read our full internet safety guide.

Essential security software

Besides perfecting how you and your family use a shared computer, it is vital to ensure that the computer is using all the best security features and applications. In this section, we will walk you through the kinds of software you should use to ensure your computer is safe.

Check your firewall

A firewall is a network security tool that ensures your computer monitors and blocks unwanted traffic coming from the internet. The very best firewalls even monitor outgoing traffic to ensure that any malware that has made its way onto your computer can’t communicate with a Command and Control (CnC) server.

For most people, the firewall that ships native with Windows or Mac OS X will suffice. To ensure that your firewall is protecting your computer, it is essential that you check that the firewall is switched on.

  • On a Windows computer, navigate to your control panel and type firewall in the search box.
  • On a Mac, go to system preferences > security > firewall.

Install an up-to-date antivirus

An antivirus and anti-malware program is an essential part of your computer’s cybersecurity ecosystem, and if you are not currently using malware protection that is up to date, you are putting yourself at risk.

There are many antivirus solutions available, and not all those applications cost the earth. You can check our recommendations to find a cost effective solution that will work for your family.

We recommend getting a program that includes real-time protection - as this will ensure that any malicious exploits are quarantined as soon as they are spotted being downloaded to your machine.

Install anti-tracking

Besides the dangers caused by hackers and cybercriminals online, it is essential to protect your computer against corporate snooping. Websites use trackers and cookies to keep tabs on you and your family. This allows them to know which of their web pages you visit, what you purchase, and when you return to their website.

Most times, websites, advertisers, and marketing companies even track you on third-party websites. This means that you are constantly being monitored as you move around the web. This is far from ideal, because it allows those companies to create invasive databases about your family.

Those databases are often massive, and the kind of data they hold can have serious privacy consequences due to the way it can be leveraged to produce invasive secondary inferences. To stop this kind of tracking, we recommend that you install the following kinds of anti-tracking extensions in your browser:

Install an Adblocker

Online adverts are annoying. They slow down your computer, force you to use more data, and can be quite distracting. A good adblocker will ensure that you receive fewer pop-ups and ads, and will improve your family’s online experience. Generally, we recommend Adblock Plus due to its ease of use. For more information you can check out our guide on the 5 best adblocking extensions.

Use a password manager

How secure you and your family are online largely revolves around how securely you set up the accounts and services you use. Nowadays people use a huge number of online services, and unless all those different accounts use strong passwords - you could be putting yourself at risk.

Weak passwords can be guessed or brute-forced using specialist software, and if hackers break into one of your accounts, they will also gain access to other accounts that use the same password. Therefore, it is essential to use a different password for each and every service.

Remembering 20 or more different passwords is not easy, which means that unless your family is using a password manager, it is likely that their password security is not up to scratch. With a secure, open source password manager, each member of your family must remember only one master password and the application will do the rest.

Check out the five best password managers to get a service perfect for your family.

Remember to use Dual Factor Authentication

Alongside strong passwords, it is an excellent idea to set up Two Factor Authentication (2FA) on any service that provides it. By using 2FA, it is impossible to login to an email account, social media service, or other online accounts, without entering the password and a one-time code that is received either via text message or from within an authentication app.

This added physical layer of security stops hackers from being able to brute force your accounts and ensures that those accounts are protected from cyberattacks.

Secure your home network

Besides being attacked via the web, it is possible that you could suffer problems if you have not properly protected your home network. If your home’s WiFi is not secure, intruders living in your neighborhood could use your bandwidth, or even compromise your security by intercepting your data and snooping on your family. Potentially, a hacker could even infect your router or PC with malware, allowing them to lodge themselves in your system to do all kinds of nefarious things. To ensure this isn't possible:

  1. Change the default password on your router.
  2. Ensure wireless encryption (WPA2) is enabled to prevent strangers from accessing your network data. (If you are using a router provided by your ISP, this protection should be enabled by default).
  3. Log in to your router’s Admin panel now and again to check that you recognize all the connected devices on your network.
  4. Potentially, you could set up a guest network, so you don't have to give guests your main router password. Change the guest password regularly to ensure nobody is gaining unwanted access.

Use a Virtual Private Network

When you and your family connect to the internet, all your data must pass through your Internet Service Provider’s (ISP) servers. This allows the ISP to track every single website you and your family visit. Privacy advocates and human rights experts consider this to be a massive invasion of your privacy.

Besides ISPs collecting that data, they must often share that information with government surveillance agencies, which are also keeping tabs on you and your family.

If you prefer not to allow your ISP and the government to track everything you do online, including what you download and what you stream, it is a very good idea to protect your privacy with a VPN. A VPN service encrypts all your data so that your ISP can no longer track your metadata and web browsing habits.

In addition, a VPN conceals your IP address (location) from the websites you visit. This prevents a layer of tracking and allows you to bypass censorship and geo-restrictions online. Check out our VPN beginner's guide to find out more. Or check out the ten best VPNs to get a service perfect for protecting your family’s privacy.

Written by: Ray Walsh

Digital privacy expert with 5 years experience testing and reviewing VPNs. He's been quoted in The Express, The Times, The Washington Post, The Register, CNET & many more. Ray is currently rated #7 VPN and #7 internet privacy authority by Agilience.com.

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