Be Sure You’re Secure: Password Hygiene

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Nearly 73 percent of all Americans have fallen victim to some type of Internet crime in their lifetime, 9 million people were victims of identity theft last year and more than 600,000 Facebook accounts are hacked daily. Are you hiding under your bed right now like I am?

Chances are most of us will get hacked at some point in our life and then we’ll have to send out that dreaded Email of Shame: when you apologize for sending your friends, family and the PTA an ad for Viagra or a plea to make an international wire transfer. While no information online is truly 100 percent safe, there are steps you can take to ensure that yours is as safe as possible, and passwords are the first line of defense. Here are my tips on how to set, store and use them to build a fortress around your online life.

If a password is easy to remember, it’s probably easy to crack.

I know it can be difficult to remember complicated passwords, especially now that many are case sensitive and include numbers, letters and symbols. It is, however, vitally important that you avoid all of the usual suspects – 1234, the word “password,” kids’ names, birthdays (find a list of the most hackable here). Mixing up capital letters and using symbols might complicate things, but it can also save you from the online creeps.

Mix it up.

Don’t use the same password on multiple sites — especially your email account! Your email is used to reset the passwords of your other sites, so if someone gets the keys to your email account, they can start to take over your life in a matter of minutes.  Yes, it’s a pain in the neck to invent new passwords for each online account. Yes, it’s beyond critical to invent new passwords for each online account.

Keep ‘Em Long and Strong

A passphrase that’s at least 14 characters cannot be cracked by an attacker in less than 24 hours, so it’s a deterrent. Most hackers will move on to easier targets. If that’s a little too long for your typing, consider a password that is 10 characters or more and contains a combo of upper and lower case letters, numbers and symbols. Think of a totally random phrase like “Abe Frohman Sausage King of Chicago” (remember Ferris Bueller?) and then use the first two letters of each word “AbFrSaKiOfCh.” Throw a number in there somewhere and now you’ve got a password that is both complicated and memorable (now try your own!).

Plead the Fifth

Avoid answering those security questions accurately… it’s like tossing a thief the keys to your car.  The answers to most of those questions can be found with a quick Google search, like what high school you went to, what car you drive, or your mother’s maiden name. Others have a limited number of answers that make them easy to crack, like what’s your favorite color or what year you graduated high school. If a program or site forces you to answer the questions in order to set up an account, you can always answer with something random that you’ll remember, like characters from your favorite movie in alphabetical order.

Embrace Change

Like underwear, passwords get threadbare and need to be replaced. Changing your passwords every three months will keep the hackers busy and your information safe.

Hire Some Help

So now that I’ve told you to create several complicated passwords, change them often and mix the up – how the heck are you supposed to remember them? My suggestion: a well-reviewed, easy to use password manager, like  Passpack, 1Password or Dashlane. These systems protect all your passwords behind one master password, so that’s the only one you need to remember.  Even better, they auto-log you in to the sites you want to visit, so you don’t have to remember your passwords or type them.  You can keep all of your ever changing secret codes safe without throwing your memory into a meltdown. They can also store credit card numbers and “identities” (names and addresses) that make easy work of filling out forms when you’re buying something on the web.

So there you have it. Sorry if I scared the cyber-pants off of you, but good password hygiene can help keep the hackers away… and the Nigerian princes.

Good luck and stay safe!

Carley Knobloch is obsessed with helping people use technology to make life easier (and more fun).  As a Today Show contributor and HGTV host, she explores the world of home control and makes tech accessible to even the least savvy.  On her blog,CarleyK.com, she helps busy women navigate the modern world beautifully and efficiently.  She is also the creator and host of the Webby-nominated show Digitwirl, which celebrates time, money and sanity saving technology.  She has spread her gospel of “Forward Living” on CNN, Ricki Lake, EXTRA, and in Real Simple and Bloomberg BusinessWeek.  She resides in Los Angeles with her husband, two kids, springer spaniel, and myriad tablets.

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