How To Fix Your Mom’s Computer Once and For All
If life were a sitcom (and believe me, it is), the phone would only ring on your mom’s end when you need money. And it would only ring on your end when she needs help with her computer. All generational clichés aside, you really can’t blame ma or pa for not being able to keep up with the frenetic pace of technology—every day, there’s a new worm or virus or web standard to be aware of.
It’s no wonder that by the time you show up for the holidays, their computer is sitting in the corner, unplugged and facing the wall in an attempt to stem
the deluge of porn popups and debt consolidation ads that flows forth unbidden from the machine whenever someone bothers to wait 35 minutes for it to boot up.
The issue here is that parents, unlike you, don’t bother to tweak, clean, and optimize their computers when they first get them, thereby nipping the malware, spyware, and ad-ware, etc. in the bud. Best Buy’s Geek Squad will do it for them for several hundred dollars, but it’ll only temporarily slow the Sunday afternoon voicemails from your dad saying:
“Hey Champ, hope you’re doing well. Listen, when you got a moment, can you give me a call? My computer says it has a virus, and I am wondering whether I should pay for this $500 online virus removal software or if I can just go with the $250/year online monitoring plan?”
…or a phone call from _______ relative (fill in the blank)
“Hey, what do you have going on Friday night? Want to come over for dinner?”
Your best bet: The next time you get a tech support call, be proactive, and parent-proof your mom or dad’s computer. Here are some basic fixes that should get you started. No list is ever complete when it comes to tech support dinners… so if you see I missed one, please add it to the comments so I can include it in the article!
Step One – Install Microsoft Security Essentials
OEMs have this nasty habit of packaging new computers with free trials of overpriced anti-virus software that either expires unnoticed (except for the occasional nag screen) or scares your parents into sinking hundreds of dollars into military-grade security software for no reason. That’s not to say that they shouldn’t have some sort of virus protection. There’s just no reason to pay for it.
Your first step: Install Microsoft Security Essentials. It’s free, it’s effective and it’s easy to use and it keeps itself up-to-date with no intervention (internet connection required). Once you have MSE in place, you can remove that obnoxious expired trial of Norton Antivirus or McAfee Antivirus.
Next, install and run Malware Bytes, Ad-Aware, or some other anti-malware software and clean out all that junk. It’ll likely accumulate all over again once you leave, but you can just run a sweep again next time you visit or show them how to do it while you’re there.
Step Two – Install a New Browser
The web browser is the subway platform of the technology world. It’s the only way to get where you’re going, but if you don’t know the unwritten rules of engagement, it can be the most dangerous place in the world.
- Don’t make eye contact with groups of young ruffians
- Never go with a hippie to a second location
- Never click on anything that appears in a pop-up or in flashing text (okay, only one of those applies to your browser, but you get the idea). These issues are made worse if your parents are using an old, outdated, or insecure browser. They could still be using Internet Explorer 6 for all you know.
So, step one, educate your parents with the life lessons and Security tips I listed above. Step two, update Internet Explorer to the latest version. Granted, the latest version of IE isn’t perfect, but you’ll close numerous known and unknown security gaps if they’ve never updated IE.
You might also want to have them install a third-party browser. Google Chrome is very stable and less prone to malware than IE, but there is still the occasional site that doesn’t work perfectly well with Chrome. You might want to make your parent’s default browser Mozilla Firefox as a happy medium. Chances are, they won’t even notice that you changed anything, as long as you import all their bookmarks and favorites according to whatever haphazard system they use.
Step Three – Free Up Disk Space
You know what to do here—uninstall old programs, clear out temporary caches, delete duplicate files from messy photo uploads, etc. Sometimes all you have to do to banish those pesky “out of disk space” warnings is empty the recycle bin. You may also want to run CCleaner and defragment their system. However, if the situation is truly dire, buy them an external hard drive and show them how to store their music and photos there since those are probably the files taking up the majority of space on their system.
Step Four – Update or Upgrade Windows
Windows Update is your friend, and it’s your mom’s friend, too. If they have an OS that doesn’t have Automatic Update (pre-Vista), then consider springing for a copy of Windows 7. There might be a slight learning curve while you acclimate them to the concept of desktop gadgets and the Start orb, but an investment in a more stable OS will prevent a number of security and compatibility issues down the road.
Step Five – Dust and Clean the PC and Install New Hardware Components
Your mom spent 18 (or more?) years picking up your dirty socks, so why not return the favor and clean out the innards of her PC tower? A good air dusting can lengthen the life of a PC, and while you have that case cracked open, you can do some simple upgrades. If they complain about sluggishness, add some RAM. If they are having trouble maintaining their WiFi signal, give them a better wireless card (and a matching router, if necessary). If they keep running out of disk space, add an internal hard drive. Make their lives better through hardware upgrades. Nowadays a trip to Fry’s will probably set ya back no more than a week’s worth of cappuccino, however, that’s money well spent since it can help keep you off the phone.
Step Six – Give Them a Few Tutorials
Take some time to give your parents “the talk.” That is, a very basic Safe Computing 101 crash course. Show them how to bookmark their email inbox, create secure passwords, and have their browsers auto-fill so they don’t have to write it down somewhere. Give them a list of dos and don’ts that may seem like common sense to you, but may not show up on their radars: “Don’t give personal/financial info over email, do run Windows Update, don’t click on ads, don’t forward me ANYTHING before checking Snopes.com.”
You may also want to give them a list of reputable sites where they can find solid information and shopping deals and show them how to identify shady websites (i.e. free-ipad-for-senior-citizens.info) and deceptive ads. If they are willing and able, switch them to Gmail and off that legacy AOL.com or Verizon.NET, Earthlink.com, NetZero etc.. that provide little to no AV/Malware scanning and will cut ya off if you ever drop the dial-up service…
You may also want to bookmark a few useful tutorials from a site like… groovyPost.com (sorry… shameless self-promotion I know), or print off a set of instructions for common fixes. Put it in a well-organized binder if that works better for them. Make sure you organize your step-by-step tutorials by the problem, rather than the solution. For example, instead of titling it “How to Power Cycle Your Modem and Router,” call it “What to Do If Your Internet Stops Working.”
Step Seven – Bookmark Join.Me
Sometimes, you just have to be there to fix a problem. More often than not, a parent describing a technical issue over the phone is like listening to a fiancé give feedback on wedding decorations (“Yeah, I’m into the frilly white stuff with the hangy down things…”). It’s better if your mom or dad can just cede control to you via a remote assistance application, and there’s no better or easier solution than Join.Me, my favorite FREE remote assistance screen sharing and remote control APP (MAC/Windows).
Put a bookmark for Join.Me on their desktop, and the next time they call you for help, just have them launch it and read you back the code/URL. Then you can just do whatever fix for them on your own, as long as it’s a software issue. Just be sure to tell them their mouse might start moving once you take control or else they might think you’ve hooked up with some black magic cult who’s taken your soul in exchange for these newfound powers.
Step Eight – Backup their system
In this day and age, there really is no excuse for losing critical data. There are a million services out there that will not only keep your parent’s system fully backed up, but will also provide version history on all files as well (just in case something is deleted or modified by accident). My personal favorites are Dropbox and Mozy however CrashPlan is also a good option as is SugarSync. Not only will Dropbox and SugarSync provide protection but they are also FREE for the first several gigs and support both MAC and Windows. Oh, and guess what, if you keep the password, you can restore the files for them right from the Dropbox / SugarSync website yourself thus eliminating the need to connect to their PC using join.me or walk them through it over the phone. Grab the files, email them back to them, and be done. Another satisfied customer! Oh and once again, your parents will think you’re a genius with black magic skills. They will of course be talking about this for years to come at their next bridge party.
The above eight steps should be enough to significantly reduce your time spent on the phone trying to cure your parent’s computer woes. Of course, there is much more you can do, but you get the idea. It’s all about patching, preventing, and streamlining. Fix their existing problems, make it hard for them to access potentially harmful corners of the web, and make it easy for them to access what they use most often so they don’t have to detour through The Narrows of Gotham City to get there.
If you have a lot of time on your hands, you may even want to completely back up their important stuff using something like Dropbox or Mozy, wipe their system clean and build it back up from scratch. For example, if your parents only use their computer for Facebook and email, you could feasibly install a lightweight version of Linux for them and populate their desktop with a few choice shortcuts. Or, if they use their computers for organizing digital photos, you could get them started with Windows Live Photo Gallery or Picasa. Do your best to optimize their computing experience around the things that they do often while downplaying or eliminating the elements that they never use and your mom or pop will have much fewer clashes with their computer which in the end… means fewer tech support dinners for you!
I just love this how-to. Its great. Well written and a great guide for me and my brother :-)
Great guide. Just finished all of it.
I’m playing with Join.me however and I don’t see the remote control option. ?
Click the little mouse icon to request control, and then the host has to allow it.
And to Tig88: SpyBot Search and Destory is very good–I don’t use it personally, but it’s got staying power and that speaks for something. It’s been around for over a decade.
Advanced users also might want to try HijackThis
Spybot search & destroy is horrible.
Just because it has been around forever doesn’t mean it is good, just take a look at Mcafee or Norton.
Also wHat do u think of spybot search and destroy?
Sorry… Spybot blows. teatimer drives me crazy and is non-stop false positives. Personally, I say just go Microsoft Security Essentials + Windows Defender (yeah… I said it).
Good job and thanks for sharing! This will def be helpful!
Excellent Post! – So many I can share this with – Thank you.
(Loved Safe Rule #2: “Never go with a hippie to a second location” ) :-)
Thanks for the feedback! Us “IT” Geeks need to work together!
Umm… FYI – Mozy is no longer UNLIMITED backup so you should probably update this groovypost to recommend something else ;)
I’m the mum who gets the requests but not the help – I don’t know what I’d do without you MrGroove!
@Anne – Thank you so much for the feedback! I’m glad were able to help you!
Very shortly I’ll be launching another site which is aimed at making it even easier to ask questions and get help so stay tuned!
Really informative post, A++ would read again.
Quick heads up; windows XP has automatic updates. Just make sure it’s enabled and make sure mom and/or dad understands the importance of leaving automatic updating enabled.
I’m late on this, but great post. Except for the whole stereotype-reinforcing thing. I actually get way more calls for help from my dad (sigh).
I am sending this to my son, who, with his MIS degree and a safe distance, refuses to help me do ANYTHING to improve my computers. It’s a HOOT! Thanks to his refusal to get involved, I have learned far more than I would otherwise have, but I’m not sure that I am grateful most of the time. ;-) Now that I acquired a MacBook Pro he may have an excuse, but I highly doubt it.
This is great to hear Geri. When computer users take a proactive approach at self-educating it makes life a lot easier for all of us techies, and that’s the very reason why groovyPost was started to begin with :)
My favourite Windows solutions are given below but I can’t accept any responsibility if they don’t work properly on your machine or ruin it, so use at your own risk.
Before experimenting with any of the following, back up anything you don’t want to lose. Save it to the cloud, an external hard drive, USB stick or CD/DVD. Things like photos, films, emails, contacts, calendar, drivers, etc.
Reboot Restore Rx (for equivalents see:
http://alternativeto.net/software/reboot-restore-rx/). Any changes made to the system/hard drive disappear after reboot, so if you need to save anything during a session save it to the cloud, USB stick, external hard drive or CD/DVD (public libraries often use this type of software for obvious reasons but it can just as easily be used at home). This is as close to malware-proof as I think you can currently get.
Hard drive imaging software (also known as ghosting software) such as Paragon Backup & Recovery. Make sure your first two jobs after installing are: a) create a recovery CD or recovery USB stick so you can still access your hard drive images if your computer won’t boot, and b) create your first hard drive image (but make sure you update your antivirus and antimalware apps and carry out full-system scans BEFORE creating the hard drive image. Running CCleaner before creating that image wouldn’t hurt either). You could then defragment your hard drive and create a second image. You could then install Reboot Restore and make a third image.
Reboot Restore means that even if you get malware during a session (whether known to you or not), reboot and it’s gone.
Paragon means that if your system is ruined, you can get back back to the state your system was in before it got messed up in about half an hour (in my experience). It would make sense to save large files like photos and films (and the hard drive images themselves) to an external hard drive or separate partition on the hard drive to keep the hard drive images to a sensible size. In my experience the hard drive images were about 30 GB in size but YMMV.
Also I use Firefox with the following add-ons:
– WOT (Web of Trust): indicates whether search engine links are safe to click on or not
– uBlock Origin: blocks ads on webpages
– Ghostery: blocks trackers on webpages
– HTTPS Everywhere: enforces encrypted connections to sites if available, else you get a standard HTTP connection (i.e not encrypted).
Secunia PSI is handy to make sure your Java, Flash, Adobe Reader, etc is up to date.
MalwareBytes AntiExploit is also useful.