Santa sitting in front of his laptop and a stack of gifts, covering his face with his hands.

The only certainties in life are death, taxes, and having to provide tech support for your relatives over the holidays because you “know computers.” Save yourself some time, and follow our 12-step plan to clean and secure everyone’s gadgets.

Update Computer Operating Systems

We don’t necessarily recommend updating an operating system (OS) on the first day a new version is released. In general, though, it’s a good idea to keep your OS up to date. Both Windows and macOS bundle security updates with bug fixes and feature updates, so an up-to-date system is one of the easiest and most effective ways to keep a computer safe.

On both Windows computers and Macs, it’s easy to find out which version of the OS it’s running and upgrade if necessary. You can follow our instructions to update the firmware on both Windows or macOS.

This can take some time, so you’ll probably want to do this step first.

Activate Antivirus Software and Run a Scan

A hand holding a smartphone that's running an antivirus, next to a laptop on a desk that's also running an antivirus scan.

Antivirus software prevents viruses and other unpleasant things from infecting a machine. It also monitors everything that’s downloaded or installed, compares it to a list of programs that are known to be harmful, and prevents it from delivering anything nefarious to the system.

We recommend Windows Defender for Windows machines. It’s been built into the OS since Windows 8. It’s also free and easy to use—just turn it on, tell it to update its virus definitions automatically, and then scan the machine.

There are fewer viruses and malware that target Macs, but they’re increasing. Installing an antivirus shouldn’t cause any problems, though. Choose a reputable program, install it, update the virus definitions, and scan the Mac.

Turn on Anti-Malware Software and Run Another Scan

It’s impossible for antivirus software to be 100 percent effective against everything, so you should also install a good anti-malware program. We recommend Malwarebytes for both Windows and Macs.

Install it, update the malware definitions, and then scan the machine again.

See If Passwords Have Been Stolen

A piece of paper with handwritten passwords.

Because we spend so much of our lives online, and people tend to use very common passwords or the same one on many sites, it’s crucial that they know if their passwords have been stolen. Check HaveIBeenPwned (HIBP) to see if an email address or password for any online accounts have been compromised.

We’ve covered HIBP before, so if you’ve never used it, just follow the instructions.

Change All Passwords and Install a Password Manager

Regardless of whether HIBP returns any hits, having a unique password for every website is one of the best ways to improve safety on the internet.

Unfortunately, multiple passwords are often really hard to remember. That’s where a password manager comes in. It will generate and store passwords for every site your family member logs in to.

Enable Two-Factor Authentication Everywhere

The best way to protect online accounts is by enabling two-factor authentication. When Google conducted a study on security hygiene, it looked at how effective different methods of security were at preventing automated bots, and bulk phishing and targeted attacks.

The only method that was 100 percent effective against all three types of attack was two-factor authentication (2FA) using an app or hardware key.

This is why we recommend using 2FA via an app. However, 2FA with SMS (text messages) is still better than not using 2FA at all.

You can enable 2FA on Google accounts, Apple IDs, Office 365, Amazon, Twitter, Instagram, Slack, and a whole bunch of other accounts, including Facebook, Yahoo!, and Dropbox.

Don’t forget to copy the recovery codes, though, so if your family member loses or breaks his phone, he can still get in easily.

Uninstall Unnecessary Apps

A mouse pointer on an "Uninstall" button.

Unused apps can be a security risk because people often forget to update them. They also take up hard drive space and potentially slow down a computer if they’re loaded into memory when the computer boots.

Removing any unnecessary apps makes a computer more secure, increases hard drive space, and might make it run a bit quicker.

Here’s how you can remove installed apps from Windows 10, uninstall built-in Windows apps, and remove any app from macOS.

Update All Remaining Apps

It’s important to keep apps updated because the latest versions are normally the most secure and reliable. They also have the latest features and run faster. Here’s how to upgrade apps on Windows and Macs.

Remove Unnecessary Browser Extensions

Browser extensions can be useful, but they can also slow it down and make it less secure. In the worst-case scenario, they can also actively spy.

This might be obvious to you, but if you’re cleaning up someone else’s machine, it’s common to find a bunch of sketchy extensions doing who knows what.

Check out our guide on removing browser extensions from Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari, and Opera, or this one for Edge.

Update the Operating System on a Mobile Device

Like computers, phones and tablets benefit from the latest updates to their operating systems as these contain bug fixes, security updates, and feature enhancements.

You can follow the steps in our guides to update Android devicesiPhones, and iPads to the latest available software.

Uninstall Unnecessary Apps on Mobile Devices

A finger about to press the "X" delete button on the Facebook app.

Smartphones are the backbone of many people’s lives. They contain everything from email accounts and banking services, to medical data, and fingerprint or face unlock.

Because phones (and tablets) contain so much valuable and private information, it’s best to remove any unwanted apps. After all, as we mentioned previously, you can’t be sure they’re not invading your privacy.

We’ve covered how to uninstall apps on Android, and iPhone or iPad before, so check those out for further instructions.

Update All Remaining Apps on Mobile Devices

You’re almost finished—there’s just one more thing. Android, iOS, and iPadOS try to keep apps updated automatically, but that doesn’t always happen.

People sometimes disable automatic updating because they want to know what changes will be made to their device before they install the latest version.

You can follow our guides for AndroidiPhone, and iPad to make sure a phone or tablet is running the most up-to-date apps.

Now, you can go back to overindulging and relaxing—until the next relative asks you for a quick favor, that is.

RELATED: The Complete Guide to Giving Better Family Tech Support

Profile Photo for Rob Woodgate Rob Woodgate
Rob Woodgate is a writer and IT consultant with nearly 20 years of experience across the private and public sectors. He's also worked as a trainer, technical support person, delivery manager, system administrator, and in other roles that involve getting people and technology to work together.
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