Avoid helping friends and family

A friend of mine — I’ll call him Gary — phoned me a few weeks ago in a panic. “I must have a virus or something,” Gary fretted. “I can’t find my file, and my computer’s acting really flaky.”

It turned out that Gary — a writer and self-described “PC dunce” — didn’t have a virus. But he does have an 11-year-old daughter. Gary and I spent an hour or two on the phone troubleshooting. In the end, the problem we pinpointed had more to do with an inadequately supervised fifth-grader’s take on file management and downloading than with technical glitches.

You probably have your own share of stories about helping your less tech-savvy friends or coworkers through PC calamities. Chances are you want to help, but you’re not too keen on spending long hours on the phone or making late-night house calls to decipher error messages. If you work at a small company, you may be the de facto IT department, a role that complicates getting your real work done. And let’s face it: Even if you’re the most attentive son, sister, or colleague in the world, you can’t always be there when your PC dependents need you.

So how do you get out from under without feeling like a jerk? There are a lot of good strategies — from security checkups to bringing in some hired help — that can save hours of frustration for you and your hapless family, friends, and coworkers.

An Ounce of Prevention

There may never be an easy way to, say, talk Grandma through removing spyware from two time zones away, but with a little preventive maintenance, you can help stop plenty of potential disasters from striking her PC.

Start by making a list of the folks who count on you for tech support. Then help them make their computers as secure as your own. Make sure they’re running antivirus software and updating it frequently. Get them to install a firewall, especially if they’re on a broadband connection. And point them to a good anti-spyware application like Ad-aware or SpyBot Search & Destroy.

Show them how to download patches from Microsoft Corp.’s Windows Update, or — if they’re on XP — set up their PC to install the updates automatically.

Be sure that their PCs have a good data-recovery application in place. Windows Me and XP have the reliable though rudimentary System Restore feature; but for older operating systems, you’ll need a third-party utility such as Symantec Corp.’s GoBack 3 (US$40).

Make a list of simple fixes for people to try before they dial your number. For example, they can close the application and reload it, reboot the system, or check the online FAQ list for the PC maker or for the application that’s been acting up.

For chronic problem PCs, applications like Famatech’s Remote Administrator (US$35 per single license) can save time by letting you access and control a remote PC via either a network or a dial-up connection.

If your friend’s or relative’s PC is running Windows XP Professional, you can access the system remotely for free with a computer running any version of Windows, including Windows 95. Consult with Microsoft for the instructions.

The next time your sister wakes you at 3 a.m. with a long-distance problem, you should point out that another resource really is available 24/7 — the Internet.

About.com offers plain-English help for stymied PC beginners; novices may also discover helpful leads by plugging a brief description of the problem (for example, “PC won’t shut down”) into Google or another search engine. Read the June 2003 Home Office column for additional search tips and a list of recommended tech support sites.

Freebies Have Limits

If the free advice doesn’t work, there are plenty of fee-based tech support sites to consult for phone or online chat help, but they can be pricey. Before you recommend one to Mom, make sure that both of you understand the fee structure.

Some sites charge per incident, with rates typically starting at about US$25 per call. Others charge by the minute (the sites I looked at range from US$1.50 to US$2 per minute). Make sure that the site offers a free estimate before it starts the clock, and check the details of its guarantee.

A better approach, especially for folks with lots of questions, is a membership-based service. Ask Dr. Tech charges from US$90 to US$300 annually, depending on the level of service, and SpeakWithAGeek.com offers a monthly membership for about US$35. (Happy birthday, Mom!)

Of course, there are times when only an in-the-flesh geek will do. Chances are there’s at least one PC house-call service in Mom’s area, but it’s not always easy to tell how qualified — or how trustworthy — the proprietors are. The best way to find a reputable repair service is to ask around for personal recommendations. And always check with the local Better Business Bureau for complaints filed against any company that you’re considering recommending to friends or family. Also ask for details of the repairperson’s educational background and qualifications.

Most PC house-call services charge by the incident. For example, one company I spoke with charges a US$50 “visit fee” plus US$22 per 15 minutes, for a minimum charge of US$72, but fees can range widely. Just as you would in the case of online tech support, look for companies that offer an estimate before they start working, and read the fine print so you understand the limits of their liability.

In the end, you won’t be able to dodge every request for free tech support — after all, why should your cheapskate brother pay a stranger when you’ll fix the thing for no money? But when you have some preventive practices and outside backup in place, those panicked telephone calls should become a little less frequent.

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