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Scam Alert

Passwords to Head Off the Hackers

New rules for an old problem: how to create a strong password


— David Selman/Alamy

Easier recall of 'hard' passwords

Of course, the more complicated a password, the harder it is for you to remember it — explaining why you may often quickly change the cryptic passwords initially assigned when you open a new online account. After all, who can remember "iH3k&tR#rS-c"?

You can — by taking some new advice: Choose a sentence, phrase or song that you can easily remember, and add a few keystroke tweaks. The above 12-character password, for example, is a hacker-resistant version of "I have 3 kids and they are really super-cool" (which is true for me, but hackers, take note: I'm not using it as a password).

Your favorite song? "When I'm feeling blue/All I have to do/Is take a look at you" becomes "WiFbAiH2DiTaLaU," with each word's initial letter alternating between lower case and capital. Then "A Groovy Kind of Love" becomes a stronger password.

And while you shouldn't use birthdays or anniversaries as a password — those dates may be available in online public records and used by hackers who specifically target you — those easy-to-remember dates can be tweaked for better protection. If you must rely on your June 10 wedding, for instance, consider including lesser-known info — such as the initials of your maid of honor (Susan Jones) and honeymoon destination (Miami), à la "sj@0610#miaFL."

Of course, this level of complexity may not be for everyone. But give it a try — if you create (and remember) passwords like these, you'll have nearly uncrackable security.

Other old-standby ways to bolster password security:

  • Say no when browsers offer to save your password. Website browsers such as Firefox and Internet Explorer let users save passwords so that they don't have to enter them each time they go to a site, but widely used password-stealing "Trojan" programs know where to look for and how to steal that information. Plus, a saved password can translate to easier hacking if your computer gets stolen.
  • Use different passwords for different accounts. And change them every 90 days or so. Only about one in five computers users employs multiple passwords on different accounts, and many fail to ever change them.
  • Check your password. Whenever you choose a new one, gauge its strength at websites such as Microsoft's Password Checker.

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of
Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.

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