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Identity Theft and Your Passwords

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Passwords
Getty/James Lauritz

Twenty years ago passwords were something we heard about in military shows and the occasional Masonic ritual. But today, passwords are a part of our everyday lives. We use them for everything from online shopping to accessing our e-mail account on the Internet. We have hidden our most valuable information behind passwords instead of lock and key, so they are more important than ever, especially when it comes to identity theft and cyber crimes. But sometimes passwords can be difficult to come up with. But by using simple tricks like memory hooks, number substitutions, and password formulas, you can create "killer" passwords that are easy to remember.

Memory Hooks

A memory hook is a phrase that is easy to remember and will remind you what your password is. An easy memory hook is just using the first letter of each word in a phrase. For example, (and I suggest you don't use this one since I'm writing about in a public forum) "Mary had a little lamb, it's fleece was white as snow" would become "mhallifwwas". That is pretty easy to remember, and pretty hard to guess, which is exactly what you're looking for in a password.

Number Substitutions

Another handy trick when creating a password is to substitute a number or character for a letter. This can make the password look a little strange, but it also creates some very complicated passwords that are easy to remember, as long as you remember the substitutions. Of course, some people will use one substitution, but not another, (i.e. you might choose to use ! for the letter "i", but not use $ for "S".) Here are a few fairly common substitutions:

  • 1 or ! = L or I
  • 4 or @ = A
  • 5 or $ = S
  • 6 = b or G
  • 7 = T
  • 8 = B
  • 9 = q
  • 0 = O
  • + = t
  • # = tt
  • < = c
  • |< = K
  • | and V and | = M
  • \ and / = V
  • VV (two "v"s) = W

Using a number substitution, you can make a common item like the Coke can on your desk your new password. (CocaCola becomes <0|<@<01@ - a pretty tricky password if you ask anyone.)

You can also combine the memory hook and number substitution ideas for a wonderful password and that would be very secure. In the nursery rhyme example above, your new password could be "|V|h@111fww@$". This is a little tougher to remember, but much harder to crack.

Formulas

When you're dealing with a website password, you can let the website be part of a memory hook. In this case, it's a good idea to have numbers and letters that mean something to you close at hand. It's fairly safe to use birth dates, anniversaries, and other important dates in your life if they are only part of the password. So, for example, I want to set up an account on Wikipedia. I could let the website itself help me remember my password by creating this: wiki91101JEJ. This password is the first four letters of the site name, a date I will never forget, and the initials of my favorite voice actor. Of course, since James Earl Jones is a person's name I capitalized those three letters.

The secret to keeping a formula password safe is not letting anybody know your formula. It should go without saying that you did not write your password down and hang it on a Post-It note on your computer screen.

Other Thoughts About Passwords

A friend of mine suggested that he keeps is passwords in an Excel spreadsheet. That way he can copy them with a mouse and paste them into the password box. The upside to this is that if there is a key logger installed on the computer, it won't catch the password since it wasn't typed in. The downside of course, is that all of his passwords are in an Excel spreadsheet, which means if it gets stolen it's game over.

If you decide to use this idea to protect your passwords, don't name the spreadsheet "passwords" – name it something like "maintenance schedule" or "euchre party".

Of course passwords are not the ultimate answer to everything. They can be stolen and changed fairly easily. Some authorities in the information technology world are making a bigger push toward getting rid of passwords completely in favor of biometric identification and single-use passwords. But for the time being, having is safe and secure password is crucial to protecting yourself and your family from identity theft.

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