Tag Archives: Internet safety

Protecting your password and account information online

There seems to be a wave of email “hacking” underway right now. I’ve received several messages in recent weeks from friends whose email accounts have been compromised. If those friends use the same password for their email that they do for online banking or other accounts, they could face a mountain of financial and identity-theft woes.

While it may be impossible to create a “hack-proof” password, there are steps you can take to protect your password while shopping and corresponding online. Follow these tips to reduce your chance of becoming a fraud victim:

Use unique passwords for sensitive accounts, including your email account, bank account and retail accounts that include sensitive information such as stored credit card numbers. If you need to, use a notebook with coded hints to track your passwords if you aren’t sure you can remember them all. Don’t write your actual passwords down, but instead record tips that may prompt you to remember them. Keep this notebook in a hidden spot at home; don’t carry it around with you.

Make your password as strong as possible. When creating a password, include:

  • A mixture of upper- and lower-case letters
  • At least one number
  • At least one special character, such as an asterisk, percentage sign or exclamation point
  • Eight characters or more; in general, the longer a password is, the more secure it is.

Microsoft points out that criminals use special software to dechiper your password. For this reason, do not use:

  • Any words that can be found in the dictionary in any language
  • Personal information, such as your date of birth, your street name, people’s names or pet names
  • Letters adjacent to each other on the keyboard (example: asdfgh)
  • Words spelled backwards or misspelled
  • Numbers found in your address or phone number; for example, if your phone number is 803-900-1234, don’t include “9001” in a password.
  • Abbreviations
  • Substitutions: using zeros for the letter O or the number 1 for the letter I in a dictionary word–New York University points out hacking programs check for these types of replacements.
  • Numbers or letters in a sequence, such as hijklmn or 67890
  • Any suggested password you found online

You may feel it will be too hard to remember a password that doesn’t contain any recognizable words. Consider creating a sentence you can remember, then using elements of that sentence to craft your password. For example, my sentence might be: “I want to go on vacation in Australia.” The first letters of each word would lead me to IwtgoviA. Then, I could add a special character in the front and middle of the password and a couple of numbers (maybe the age by which I want to travel there) at the end. The resulting password: %Iwtgov!iA61

Microsoft offers an online password strength-checking tool that it says is secure. If you’re going to use this, I recommend trying out different password formats but not entering the exact password you are planning to create.

More password-protection tips

  • Microsoft recommends changing your password every three months on email, banking and credit card accounts, while Symantec recommends changing financial account passwords every one to two months.
  • Make your new password substantially different from your previous one.
  • Avoid using the same password on multiple accounts.

Keeping your password safe online isn’t easy, but falling victim to hackers can create much greater challenges. Have you been the victim of a stolen password? What online safety lessons have you learned the hard way?

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Avoid Christmas rip-offs—shop with caution at unfamiliar retailers

‘Tis the season to hunt for holiday bargains and search for that amazing item for the person who has everything. Your search for the perfect Christmas gift may take you to online stores at which you’ve never shopped, companies with unfamiliar names and reputations. Before you buy that wooden watch, 3-D cookie cutter kit or remote-controlled flying shark, make sure the store you’re about to do business with won’t take your money and run. Also, make sure the product you’re buying is worth the investment.

There are four main steps I take to when shopping with unfamiliar companies online:

1. Visit the Better Business Bureau website. Click on the “Check out a business or charity” link, then type in the name or Web address of the company you’re interested in. Note the grade given to the company by the BBB, and scan its report on the company to see how many complaints have been filed against the business and how it responded to those concerns. I avoid shopping with any company that has less than an A-minus rating. I also avoid companies that don’t have a BBB report.

2. Run an Internet search with the company’s name, followed by the word “reviews.” Read comments posted by those who say they’ve purchased items from the business. Did items arrive on time and in good condition? Did the company respond promptly to customer emails? Keep in mind that some companies hire people to post positive reviews on the Internet, so give more weight to negative comments.

3. Read product reviews. You can gather valuable information about specific merchandise by reading reviews of it on retailer and manufacturer websites. If you’re buying a winter jacket, you can learn whether it runs large, small or true to size by checking out comments from customers on apparel sellers’ websites. Reviews on a sporting goods website may reveal that a product broke after only a couple of uses. Many retailers allow customers to rate products on a scale of one to five, making it easier to compare similar products. Scan several pages of reviews to look for patterns of recurring issues with the merchandise. 

4. Pay with a credit card. Many credit card companies offer you zero liability for unauthorized purchases, protecting you if an unscrupulous retailer misuses your credit card information. Also, if an item you receive is broken and the retailer won’t cooperate with your requests for a refund or replacement, you may be able to dispute the charge with your credit card company and get your money back. Some cards also double the manufacturer’s warranty on items you purchase and give you short-term protection against damage and theft of the items. Contact your card issuer to determine which protection benefits apply to your account.

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