Plan Ahead for Things That Could Go Wrong
New Computer - What to do First
How to Manage all Those Passwords
Maintenance You Need to do Every Month
Be Aware of Actions That Could Put You at Risk
Links for More Information

Plan Ahead for Things That Could Go Wrong

Think about using a computer as a bit like learning to drive. You want to understand situations to avoid and you want to be prepared for incidents on the road. Owning one also requires some effort, both to select the make+model+options you want and to drive it in a way to avoid the potholes. Remember to change the oil and don't leave the key in the ignition!

People often keep important stuff on their computers, perhaps family photos or favorite recipes or tax records. If you do keep anything important, you don't want to lose it or have it made available to crooks.

There is always a risk that your computer could stop working. In that case, you want to have a backup so your files can be restored to your repaired computer or a new one. Frequent backups are also handy if you simply make a mistake and delete something you didn't mean to trash.

Today, there is a far worse problem called malware. It's evil software that could manage to find its way onto your computer. It can look at your files and watch your keystrokes. It can send anything interesting back to its masters anywhere in the world. It could be your bank account login. A particular malware known as ransomware can hide away your files and demand money from you to get them back. It's important that you know how to avoid malware infections in the first place, to be vigilant when online and to be prepared if you are targeted.

Finally, there is a fast-growing technique called 'social engineering' that uses deception to get you to do things you should not do. You might get a scam phone call or email similar to one of these:

"Your password is about to expire and you must immediately follow this link to keep your account from being closed."
"Hi, I'm calling from Microsoft to inform you that we're seeing unusual activity on your computer."
"We're offering free Anti-Virus protection, but only if you act now."

New Computer - What to do First

People often choose a new computer based on past choices. However, you now have more options than you did 10 years ago and there are good reasons to think about what you need in a computer. Windows and Mac OS require careful setup and ongoing maintenance. iPads, Chromebooks and other Android devices require far less care to keep them functioning and safe.

If you primarily use a computer for web surfing and Email, you don't necessarily need a traditional computer. On the other hand, if you have files that you want to keep with you rather than in 'the cloud,' then you might prefer a traditional system. Just be aware of the full costs and the maintenance necessary to do that as well as the risks you are taking.

Chromebooks and iPads are network devices that are designed to be connected to files and services hosted on the internet. Higher quality Chromebooks are now available and you can also add a keyboard to the iPad. They have the advantage that you don't administer the operating system and applications directly. They are largely maintained for you and will generally be much less vulnerable to malware compromises and lost files. Chromebooks have become very popular in school environments and for those who like to live in a Google/Android/Gmail world.

If you do stay with a traditional Windows or Mac computer, make sure to keep all passwords, software applications and licenses in a safe place. Make an immediate backup and continue to back up your files on a regular schedule. Allow the system to do automatic updates. Use MS Windows Defender to deter malware on Windows systems.

The distinguishing element of a traditional computer is the file system. It contains all the programs plus your personal files, keeping them on a spinning hard disk or newer solid state drive. In the long run, you won't be a happy computer owner unless you are well-organized with your files. You need to know where files can be found, what application created them and how they are backed up. You should be clear about what kinds of important information you have on your computer.

To be as secure as possible, it's strongly recommended that you follow what are called 'best practices.' One best practice is regular backups. Another is to have multiple accounts on your computer. The first account is a privileged or administrative account that can be used to do anything, such as installing software or setting up backups. You should create a second account for your personal files, email and web surfing that does not have administrative privileges. This may help limit the damage if you happen to click on a bad link or someone sends you a virus-infected email attachment.

Another best practice is to encrypt the data on laptops and mobile devices. If you accidently leave your laptop somewhere or it's stolen from your car, the personal info on it can't be seen by anybody else if the disk is encrypted. Crooks also can't get to your email or bank accounts using your laptop or phone App. This so-called 'full disk encryption' can be done with BitLocker (Windows) or FileVault2 (Mac OS). All you have to do is simply turn it on. The only downside, and it's an important one, is that you must keep your password secure and never lose it. Think also about whether your backup device should be encrypted or simply locked away. You don't want that to walk away with personal data on it.

The punch line here is to plan ahead. Be organized and know how you can be prepared to avoid malware, or deal with lost files or a failed computer. The computer shop down the street will know how to refresh your unhappy computer by flushing all the files (and malware) on it and then reloading the operating system. Do you know how to get your files and programs back as well?

How to Manage all Those Passwords

Passwords are keys. They let you in the front door. Using a short and simple one is like having a cheap door lock than can be opened with a screw driver. Why would you do that? Passwords fall roughly into three categories:

Bad ones -- like the above-mentioned short ones or some combination of dictionary words and a number or two.

Good ones -- you have to make up something at least 10-12 characters long that no person or computer could guess, but you can recall reliably. This is tough and requires some thought.

Great ones -- generally 12-20 characters of random gibberish. You don't try to remember them, but keep them in a Password Manager or hidden away so you can paste them into a web browser when you need them.

One possibility is to create good ones that include a 5-digit PIN number that you will always remember (the zip code of a friend in Kansas?). You can write passwords down on a cheat sheet or in a log book, but don't write down the PIN code with them. Similarly, for the great passwords -- a PIN code at the end will make your online crib sheet useless to anyone but you.

So, why a different password for every online account? Sometimes, it's not you that blunders and reveals your credentials, but the company. Yahoo was struck by an intruder who stole 500 million passwords. Do you want that intruder to have access to your bank or Facebook account as well? This happened as long ago as 2012, so there was plenty of time for further mischief. Also, it's a good reason to change passwords a few times a year.

So, use complicated passwords and don't tell anybody what they are. This is really important. Unfortunately, all this effort might not be enough if somebody sitting nearby at Starbucks with high-tech wi-fi gear intercepts your 20-character password. Or if you have malware on your computer and you don't know it. It could put your bank account credentials at risk.

Since passwords will never be quite enough, many online institutions are offering Two-Factor Authentication. It requires two items to login, usually something you know (password) plus something you have (your phone). You might start the login process with your account and password. A random code is then sent to your phone, which you have to enter to complete the log in. Another variation might be to use your fingerprint plus a PIN number, which eliminates the long password.

Going with Two-Factor for important accounts is generally a wise choice. Often, the account will recognize your computer and only the password is needed on most days. However, if you change computers or your home network changes after a power outage, you might have to enter the code sent to your phone.

One last important point to consider. If you do most of your transactions online, you should think about how your affairs are handled if you are incapacitated. Will someone else be able to reach the accounts? This has also become a problem for Estates. Opting for Email-only delivery of monthly statements means that they won't show up in your mailbox for somebody else to manage. These are not simple times.

Maintenance You Need to do Every Month

There was a time some years back when you could keep a computer until it stopped working. Sadly, this is no longer a smart thing to do. Microsoft and Apple (and Google) frequently release new operating system (OS) versions plus 'security patches' to current versions. These updates are not a luxury, but have to be done to keep your computer safe. You should set up your computer to do them automatically. When your computer is too old to run a supported operating system (5-6 years?), it must be retired or at least unplugged from the internet. If not, it's a waiting target for malware infections.

Equally important along with OS updates are updates to all the software that engages web sites, particularly web browsers and browser helpers known as 'plug-ins.' Web browsers include Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome and Safari. They do a pretty good job of updating themselves or tend to be updated when OS updates are done. However, plug-ins like Adobe Flash and Adobe Acrobat Reader are a notorious problem. You have to take control to check them frequently and make sure they get updated. Firefox can tell you if plug-ins need updates. Simply try the Plugin Check for Firefox.

Regarding backups of your computer -- do them! External hard drives or USB thumb drives are cheap. Apple's Time Machine software is nearly idiot-proof and Windows offers many options for backups. Also, you might consider cleaning house from time to time. Uninstall or delete old software that you no longer use.

Finally, we often hear about identity theft and advice to monitor credit cards and credit scores. Online banking should be seen as a two-edged sword. It's very convenient to manage monthly payments and transfers between accounts, while at the the same time, there is some risk that someone else could see your information or get access to your financial accounts. Online banking should only be done from a well-maintained and healthy computer. Otherwise, one is inviting trouble.

If you decide to use online banking, consider turning on all the notifications that are offered by your bank or credit card company. You can have them send you an Email or text message every time there is a charge to your credit card (or a charge over $100 perhaps), any withdrawal from your bank account, etc. This is a great tool, particularly since all credit cards seem to 'go bad' eventually if used for internet purchases or dining out. Also, remember to turn on two-factor logins if offered. Note that your bank may want to send text messages to your mobile phone, but often it will work just fine with land lines using audible messages.

Be Aware of Actions That Could Put You at Risk

The primary things that you DON'T want to do include (1) giving computer and online account credentials to people with bad intentions, (2) installing software that comes from questionable sources and (3) visiting web sites that might attack your computer. The last one is made much worse if your computer is not well maintained and up-to-date with all it's software patches.

Google searches are a great tool to find things, but sometimes Google can also bite your hand. If you search for Antivirus software, you might be directed to software that is either phony or tainted by malware. Looking for a free game to install? Same problem. You never want to install anything unless you are certain that it's coming from a trusted source. Google might inadvertantly direct you down a dark alley. Spam emails will also try to steer you to web sites offering tainted goods. Be very wary about following links.

When Microsoft calls, tell them you'll call back. Unless you have already engaged customer support for help in the recent past, you are likely to be talking to a scammer calling from outside the country. They either want to take over your computer or to simply steal your credit card number by offering a service you don't need.

It's also important to remember that no one should ever need to contact you because they need your password. Your bank can simply reset it. They don't need you to give it back to them. Never hand it over if you are told that some account service person needs it. Following links in email can expose you to the same scam. The link may take you to an imitation of the real site and ask for your password.

Most public wi-fi networks may be OK, but you can't always be certain. You could be offered wi-fi service by a hostile provider having the ability to listen in on your internet activities. It's prudent not to do anything sensitive on a public network. For web sessions, secure HTTPS is far better than insecure HTTP, but not bullet-proof against man-in-the-middle attacks.

Finally, if you own a computer you have to be responsible to make sure it's maintained. If you hand over possession to someone else, you may not know what was done and what new risks were created. Kids or grandkids often grab what they want off the internet and generally don't worry very much about the risks. They may be helpful when it comes to setting up a computer out of the box, but after doing that, they may not help much with the maintenance. It's best to get on top of it yourself right from the start.

Links for More Information