Has this happened to you? Your third cousin twice removed phones you, in a panic, that his computer is on the fritz. He thinks he may have picked up a virus, or maybe one of his kids messed things up sharing music with friends over the Internet, or maybe he shouldn't keep forgetting to shut down Windows before turning off the power. Can you help?
It's inevitable that anybody who knows enough about computers to be able to install a new program will be looked upon as a computer guru by those who don't and will be called upon for help. This happens in the home, and it happens in office settings as well, particularly with small businesses that don't have a formal information technology person or department.
And it's happening more and more, said Anne Kandra, a columnist for PC World magazine (http://www.pcworld.com).
"As more companies ramp up their prices for tech support, it's natural that people will look for less expensive options," Kandra said.
In addition, as anybody who has used it knows, official tech support can be unpleasant. You often have to wait significant periods of time in a phone queue, you may get shuffled from one support technician to another or even one company to another and you may wind up talking to a third-party support technician in a low-wage foreign country who has a difficult time understanding you or your problem.
Giving phone support can be a real challenge. Without seeing things for yourself, it can be difficult figuring out the person's problem let alone offering a solution. Fortunately, there's a better way. You can empower family members, friends and coworkers to prevent and solve many of their own computer glitches themselves.
In her column for PC World magazine, Kandra has shared some of these techniques, and she shared them with me as well. Among the general-interest newsstand computer magazines, PC World does the best job of reaching both experts and average computer Joes with easy-to-understand advice on both buying and using computer products.
Kandra stresses the basics. Make sure people who might call upon you with problems are set up with problem-preventing software, including those that provide virus protection, firewall safeguards, spam stopping, pop-up ad blocking.
Though free programs provide these features, the more robust and easiest to use are the commercial programs. Some experts such as Kandra recommend using individual programs from different software companies, and there's a lot to be said for choosing the best tool for any given situation.
But I find the utility suites, which bundle together utilities from the same company under the same interface, more convenient for most users. Symantec's Norton Internet Security (http://www.symantec.com) and McAfee's Redzone Suite (http://www.mcafee.com) are both well-regarded comprehensive programs. Among other things, you can download updates for the various modules in one step.
Wisely, Kandra recommended that you show users how to download bug fixes and security updates using Microsoft's Windows' update, and if they're using Windows XP, how to check for and install these patches automatically.
Show users also how to use the System Restore feature of Windows XP and Windows Me, to return to a previous setup after installing new software or otherwise making changes that causes problems. Kandra recommended Symantec's GoBack for older operating systems or if you need more features.
Make a list of troubleshooting steps users can take themselves, from closing and reloading a troublesome program or turning the entire computer off and then on again to using programs' online help features or going online to find answers.
For free online support, Kandra recommended About.com's Focus on PC Support section (http://pcsupport.about.com) as a good place to go, and I agree.
Another option is to set up the person with a third-party support service. As one example, GE Service Protection Plus (http://www.gehelpdesk.com) costs $19.95 per month, though you can try it out free for two weeks to see if you like it.
The service, a part of General Electric Co., provides support for PC and Mac hardware and software. And though it supports only 16 software programs, these include the most commonly used, including Microsoft Windows XP Home Edition, Microsoft Office and Norton Internet Security. Local area networks and offices with 25 or more employees aren't covered.
Technicians first try to solve problems over the phone, providing 24/7 access. If this doesn't work, they may send somebody to you, or if the problem is caused by a broken component, they'll repair or replace it.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway.