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Keeping Your Online Passwords Safe

By: Anna Hinds BA (hons) - Updated: 4 Aug 2010 | comments*Discuss
Online Passwords Hackers Improve Your

Does just one word secure all your banking, shopping, and forum activity? Is that word in the dictionary? You’re a hacker’s dream target. Don’t be fooled into thinking that your password will protect you from online fraud. It won’t. So what can you do to improve your security?

Choosing Online Passwords

What’s the worst password in history? “Password”. We’re not kidding – someone actually used this once. Hopefully yours are a little harder to guess. Believe it or not, dedicated hackers have developed ‘spiders’ that will try every word in the dictionary to access an online account. So if your password can be found in the dictionary, it’s not safe. Better think again.

The other popular way of choosing passwords is to use your partner’s name, date of birth, or hometown. Is this information secret? Probably not. If you have an account with a social website like Facebook or MSN, some of this information could even be on display to the whole world. And those are the first words a hacker will try. So names, places, and important dates are also best avoided. How exactly do you choose an uncrackable password?

Firstly, no password is uncrackable. You know that joke about monkeys writing Shakespeare? It’s true. Give some monkeys a few typewriters and –eventually – they’ll come back with an Oscar-award-winning script. Similarly, any combination of letters and numbers can be guessed – it just takes a piece of clever software and a few hours, days, weeks, months, or years.

What you can do is to reduce the chances of having your password guessed. You do this by:

  • Creating a nonsensical password (so it won’t be cracked by a dictionary-based programme)
  • Using a combination of letters and numbers (increasing the number of possible combinations)
  • Using an encrypted key (for things like wireless connections)
  • Changing the password now and again
  • Never writing your password down (obvious, but important).
A TIP:A password that is nonsensical (i.e. it’s not an English word) AND contains a combination of letters and numbers is hard to remember. Use the first letters of one line from your favourite film, poem, song, or book. Then swap some of them for numbers (I = 1, S = 5, B = 8).

Using a Password Safe

An online password safe is just what it says – a virtual ‘safe’ that keeps your passwords stored securely. You can open it and check them when you need to. The safe is downloaded to your computer, so it doesn’t store passwords anywhere online.

How does it work? A password safe – such as open-source KeePass – encrypts your passwords before storing them in a database. Encryption is a process that translates letters and numbers into a non-readable form. At one end, a ‘key’ encrypts your password (turning it into a jumble of gibberish) and at the other end, a second ‘key’ translates the coding back into letters and numbers. Confused? All you really need to know is that encryption has been the military standard for years, used to protect crucial information. Anyone capturing the transmission of your password won’t be able to read anything but rubbish.

To open your password safe, you’ll need one master password. It’s a good idea to make this very long and complicated – your internet safety depends on it! You can then access your passwords (save them under names like Banking, Shopping, and so on).

Don’t forget…

Finally, when typing in any password, bear in mind the following:
  • Make sure the web page you’re using has an URL beginning with “https” (the “s” stands for “secure”).
  • Use different passwords for sites that hold financial information
  • Never make a record of your password anywhere!

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