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Keep your passwords safe and secure

Computer Tutor: John Lucas


In our digital world, we use passwords multiple times a day to do things like access our email, check our bank balances, or buy gifts from Amazon.com. Our passwords are the first line of defense when it comes to protecting our personal online security.

Yet despite all the frequent warnings and news stories about the personal costs of identity theft and fraud, most of us are surprisingly indifferent when it comes to basic password security. A recent AARP survey found that 80 percent of computer users employ the same password on multiple accounts, and most fail to ever change them.

Are you one of those people? How vulnerable is your personal and financial information to an online attack? What are some simple steps you can take to improve your password security?

Some password strategies to avoid

* Using personal information in a password. Do not use your name or the name of your spouse, your kids, your friends or your pets as part of a password. Do not use personal birthday, anniversary, phone or Social Security numbers. Hackers can often directly access this kind of information via public records or easily guess it using social websites.

* Using sequential letters or numbers or other repeated characters in a password. “12345678,” “222222,” “abcdefg” or adjacent letters on your keyboard do not make secure passwords.

* Using dictionary words in any language as part of a password. Criminals use sophisticated tools that can rapidly guess passwords that are based on words in multiple dictionaries, including words spelled backwards, common misspellings and substitutions.

* Using the same password for multiple accounts. If hackers are able to obtain your single password on a non-secure site, they now have instant access to all your online accounts, including your financial information, emails, stored documents, photos, contact lists, etc.

* Storing your passwords on your computer or cell phone. If malicious users find your passwords stored on your stolen laptop or lost cell phone, they have access to all your information. Keep your password list offline in a secure spot. Do not tape your password list to your monitor or keep the list in the top drawer of your desk.

Ways to improve your password security

* Update your computer’s security software programs on a weekly basis. Your anti-virus and anti-spyware software need regular updates. Hackers and identity thieves are constantly developing and using new forms of malware (malicious software) to surreptitiously gather personal information from your computer without your permission.

* Create strong passwords. Passwords should be at least eight characters long and contain a mixture of upper and lower case letters, numbers and symbols.

* Use an online password analyzer to test the strength of your passwords. Two of my favorite sites are Microsoft’s password checker and Passwordmeter.com. These free tools are simple to use. You just type in your password and get an instant strength rating: weak, medium, strong or best.

* Use different passwords for different accounts and change them regularly. At the very least, create strong and separate passwords for your email and your online banking and financial accounts.

Next month’s topic: Strategies for creating complex, easy-to-remember passwords.

John Lucas is the owner of Your Computer Tutor, which provides personalized home computer instruction and technical support for Macs and PCs in the Portland area. Lucas welcomes questions about common computer issues. Reach him by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call 503-333-8542.