Help me secure my PC!
or, how to lock down Windows XP
or, how to keep someone from breaking into my computer

Last night I was helping a friend fix a Windows XP computer. I was amazed yet again at how "wide open" people leave their machines. So I thought I would share with you three simple things you can do to gigantically improve the security of your home computer.

Part 1: If you have a "family computer" in your house, then each person who uses it should have their own account. So for example, if you and your spouse and one of the kids are sharing a machine, then all three of you should have your own accounts. And the accounts should have passwords. These accounts are incredibly easy to create. There are at least four good reasons to create these accounts:

  1. When the kids use the machine, they will not be able to "get into" any of your files. They won't be able to accidentally delete or move any of your files, they won't be able to access your sensitive information, they won't be able to get into your email, and so on.

  2. If someone (say a babysitter) comes over and uses your machine, he/she won't be able to access/destroy any of your stuff either.

  3. You will be able to have your desktop the way you like it, and your spouse and kids will be able to have their desktops the way they like it, and you will never be bothering each other.

  4. All of your settings will be yours and yours alone. So, for example, if you want to set up "one click" access on Amazon, you don't have to worry about the kids accidentally using it and ordering 10 books.
From a security standpoint, reasons #1 and #2 are incredibly important. #3 and #4 make life much easier. Once you set up these accounts you will amazed at how much easier things will be. You will never have to worry about other people "messing up your stuff."

To set up accounts, click the "Start" button. Find "Control Panel" and click on it. Click on "User Accounts". Click on "Create a new account". Create one account for each person who uses the machine. If you have a babysitter or friend who frequently comes over and wants to check email or something, create an account for him/her as well. Or create a generic "Friends" account and let all of these people share it.

When you create an account, you will be asked whether you want the account to be "Limited" or not. Especially with kids and friends (and possibly with your spouse, if he/she is computer-illiterate), all new accounts should be "Limited". This way, your kids and friends will not be able to install any new software on your machine without your permission.

Part 2: Each of these accounts needs to have a password. Click on "Change an account" to set a password on each account.

When you set a password, you will have the option of making your files "private". You definitely should do this. Here's what you are doing: You are making it so that only the account owner can view the files in your account. If you do not make your files private, then the kids (for example) can open up your directory and look at all of your files with a few mouse clicks. The entire hard disk is wide open. If you make your files private, then that option goes away. The kids will not be able to get into your account, AND they will not be able to look at any of your files on the hard disk.

What if you are the only one using your machine? You should put a password on your machine's single account (it was created when XP was installed) and make your files private. That way if a random friend comes over and decides to use your machine, he/she will not be able to get into your files. Create a separate "Friends" account for your friend to use (see part 1), and all of your stuff will remain private.

Part 3: Now there is one last thing you need to do -- activate a screen saver.
  1. Go into each account.
  2. Right click on the desktop and select "Properties".
  3. Set up a screen saver (use the "blank" one if you do not like screen savers)
  4. Set a wait time of perhaps 5 minutes. 10 at the most.
  5. Click the check box that says, "On resume, display the welcome screen".
  6. Do this in every account.
What you are doing is telling the machine, "If I step away from the machine for 5 minutes, make me log in again." If you don't do this, then your passwords will be useless. You will log in, get up and leave your machine for an hour, and anyone who sits down at the machine will have wide-open access to your account.

If you ever get up and want to immediately lock your machine, use the "Log off" option in the "Start" menu. You do not actually have to log off (which can take a minute or two) just click "Switch user" and you will get the Welcome Screen.

Setting up these accounts will take less than five minutes. I know it sounds a little complicated if this is the first time you've seen the process, but it really is easy. You are doing three simple things:
  1. Create an account for each person who uses your machine
  2. Set a password on each account. Make sure the files are private.
  3. Activate the screen saver in each account.
These simple steps make your Windows XP machine far more secure than it is now.

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