How to Secure Your College-Bound Child's Laptop

You couldn’t be happier, or more proud. Junior is (finally) heading off to college. Now you can convert his room into an office or a gym, all while seeing your grocery bill plummet.

But one nagging concern persists. Just how do you keep his pricey new laptop secure from all those shared open networks on campus?

Take a breath, say experts.

"You are not stepping out of the cauldron and into the fire," said Rob Johnson, professor in computer sciences at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, N.Y. "It's more of what you have at home."

College campuses, like many research institutions, by nature require more network openness than a typical home network. Hence, they're prone to more possible attacks.

But such vulnerabilities are balanced by the many computer experts on the premises who can plug those security holes, Johnson explained.

However, before a laptop heads to college, there are steps that parents and students can take to ensure its safety.

First, parents should make sure there is anti-virus software installed on the machine, whether it's a PC or a Mac. Often a new computer will come with a free anti-virus trial period, which can be extended for a fee. 

It’s also important to make sure that all software on the computer is updated, or has automatic updates turned on. 

"If you have [a] system updated, but an old application that’s vulnerable, you're hosed," said Andy Willingham, an Internet security expert and blogger in Cincinnati.

Johnson also recommends using the NoScript add-on for the Mozilla Firefox Web browser. This free solution helps block drive-by downloads and generally offers more online security.

Another big issue for college kids is to be aware of the information that is shared when they log into social-media sites, Willingham said.

"Just be really careful that you are using different passwords for different sites," he said. 

That way, online criminals and identity thieves who've gotten ahold of one password can’t steal information from other sites.

Willingham also advises students not to access financial sites from public Wi-Fi networks, and to ask their schools if secured networks are available on campus.

"The last thing is to simply be vigilant," Johnson said.

In other words, be aware of websites or emails that ask for personal information, or "phishing" ploys that try to glean financial account numbers from unsuspecting users, Johnson said.

 If you get an email from your credit-card issuer asking for information, don't reply. Instead, call the issuer at the number printed on the back of your card.

Parents may also want to look into encrypting some or all of the data on their college kids' laptops so that the machines will not be vulnerable to hackers or to physical thieves. The latest versions of Mac OS X, and the professional editions of Windows Vista, 7 and 8, all have full-disk encryption software built in.

In general, college-bound kids should be educated to care for their online identities and their laptops, even when checking emails or visiting social-media sites.

"It’s about being careful and understanding what the risks are," Willingham said.

SecurityNewsDaily Contributor