Computers have a knack for developing problems when you are in the middle of an important project. Unless you have an IT person or department to call on, you will have to wrestle with the silicon beast yourself.        

There are resources that you can call on when you can’t fix things yourself. But let’s take a look at how to prevent some of the problems in the first place.

  • Use anti-virus, firewall, anti-spyware and anti-spam programs. But most importantly, keep them current. You can select a suite of bundled programs, such as Symantec’s Norton 360, which makes using the programs and getting updates easier, or you can use programs from different companies, which can be less expensive.

    As a result of the critical need to be protected this way, more Internet service providers offer free security tools with your online subscription. However, you typically have to enable the tools, and not everyone remembers to do this.

  • Regularly update Windows or whatever operating system that you’re using.The same goes for the office suite or other programs that you use, including your word processor, Web browser and spreadsheet program. The best approach is to enable programs to automatically download and install updates, which is particularly convenient if you have a high-speed cable or DSL Internet connection.
  • Get your kids their own PC for instant messaging, surfing the Web and playing games. Keep the one that you use for business or personal finance to yourself. If in exploring their creativity, your kids “blow up” their PC, at least you won’t be prevented from getting work done.

    Make sure that any child using a PC gets a primer on safe computing practices. Students often receive such instructions at school, but it doesn’t hurt to reinforce them at home. Of course, in conjunction with this, you can use parental-control software, which is often part of Internet security programs. The point is to prevent children from visiting porn, gambling, and the Internet’s seedier Web sites and discussion areas.

  • Among the most important safe computing practices is refusing to open e-mail attachments from people that you don’t know and to check with people you do know before opening attachments to make sure that the e-mail actually came from them. Also, don’t click on links in any e-mail message or pop-up window asking you to verify a credit card, bank, eBay, PayPal or similar account. Similarly, don’t provide personal information to any Web site unless you are sure that you’re at a valid location or are communicating with someone that you know and trust.

    Try to stay away from Web sites that you don’t trust. Internet security suites and free programs such as Spyware Blaster can help. If searching with Google, you can enable SafeSearch by going to its Advance Search page or simply by clicking on “Advance Search.”

  • Turn your PC off at night to free up system resources, eliminate potential conflicts and conserve energy.

If you do experience a computer problem, you can often solve it yourself by doing a Google search. Google and other Web search sites have become so thorough that you typically don’t have to look for things like the “frequently-asked-questions” archives or tech-support forums at computer company Web sites or those offered independently through the Web, e-mail or Usenet.

Type any error message that you receive on screen into Google, within quotation marks. If you experience other types of glitches, type the key words into Google along with the product’s brand name or the type of product.

Fixing things yourself is the least expensive way to go, but it can sometimes be time-consuming. If you’re not able to fix things in a timely way, it does make sense to cut your losses and call in the experts. Such options include taking your computer to a local computer shop or using a remote tech support service such as PlumChoice Computer Help (www.plumchoice.com) that will attempt to fix things over the Internet. You also can have a support technician visit your premises from a service such as Rescuecom (www.rescuecom.com) or the Geek Squad (www.GeekSquad.com).

I’ve even used such services after trying multiple steps to solve the issue on my own. After nearly completely pulling my hair out, I called in Rescuecom.

Editor’s note: Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk about the Information Superhighway. You can e-mail him at reidgold@comcast.net or check out www.reidgoldsborough.com.