Poor Passwords Put Our Online Lives At Risk

8:04 PM, Sep 11, 2012   |    comments
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Winston-Salem, NC -- It only takes one word.

If it falls into the wrong hands, one word could ruin your credit, your reputation and even your career. That word? It's the password to your email or your bank account.

And most of us have no idea how vulnerable those passwords are.

"If you pick unwisely, these things can be very easily guessed," said Errin Fulp, an associate professor of computer science at Wake Forest University. "I'm not giving you very good news, am I?"

Actually, knowing the weaknesses of the passwords most of us employ is very good news for people like Kristen Daukas.

"My husband says that if I could put a chip in my brain, I'd probably be online 24/7," she said with a laugh. The mom of three uses her laptop and her iPad to manage her kids, her house, her friendships and her marketing business. And all that requires passwords.

"I have probably 10 pages of user names and passwords," Daukas said. "I've teased my husband that if I drop dead tomorrow, you're going to be lost because I'm the keeper of all those passwords."

Without our passwords we're lost, which is why we make them easy to remember.

And there's the rub. If you don't do everything you can to come up with a great password, your entire online identity is at stake.

"You want to make [a password] look as random as possible, but at the same time you have to be able to remember it," Fulp said.

So here are some tips:

  • No matter what, make sure your password has at least 12 characters.
  • Never choose words you can find in a dictionary -- in any language.
  • If you have a favorite word or you're dead set on using your pet's name, reverse the spelling. Then add some numbers or extra characters into the mix to make it harder for someone or some software to hack.

And how about Fulp's personal favorite?

"Remember a passage that's got a lot of words in it and then use the first letter of each word. Push all that together as your pass phrase," Fulp said. "And then maybe even go that extra step and replace some letters with numbers, make it sound more like a license plate."

If you think that sounds complicated, you're right. But Fulp says the harder the password is for you to remember, chances are it will be harder for someone to hack. It's a headache to keep it all together, but it could save you years worth of heartache and money.

"If somebody gets [your password], then it's a treasure trove," Daukas said. So she's going to make more efforts to step up her password protection.

"I know that I need to get better with using more complex passwords," she said. "I know all the good tricks and the good rules, but it's just still reminding yourself to do it."

Fulp also says you really should create a different password for each and every account you use online. Of course, most of us won't do that.

And if there are some passwords you put on paper so you can remember them, Fulp says there are some you should never write down -- such as the pass codes to your email and bank account.

If you need help keeping track of your many passwords, you can buy software that stores and protects them. But you'll need a very good password for that.

WFMY News 2

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