Friday, February 6, 2015

Tutorial: Avoiding Identity Theft

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I’ve read several articles recently about the dangers of using the same password(s) for several sites, especially when those sites contain private information.  Some of those articles are online, others are in magazines, and a few can be found on blogs.

One of the things that I was most interested in finding is out how to write a password so that hackers are less likely to get into information that can cause me grief.  Having been the victim of identity theft in the past, I really try to avoid it now. 

Now that I’ve done my research, I thought I’d save you the work of trolling through a slew of articles that seem to say much of the same thing: life is miserable once your identity has been hacked.  It takes months to figure out what damage has happened and to repair it.  The damage can include financial information, insurance info, medical records, criminal identity, driver’s license info, and even children’s identities.

There are steps to take to avoid identity theft, but I was most interested in writing a good password—one that hackers would have to work extra hard to break into.  Let’s start with what NOT to use: birthdates; names of pets, children and family; school and work info; other common information that you normally share with people.

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So what to do?  Build your password using these steps:

Step 1: Begin with a phrase or sentence that you will easily remember.  It may be your favorite quote or something that you tell your children daily.  Any combination of words of 18 or more letters but does not include anything from the NOT list.  An example (which you will not use) is “The lamb was sure to go.”  Notice what is in this sentence: several words, 18 letters and an easily remembered quote.  Notice that I didn't use the first line of the nursery rhyme.

Step 2: Change some of the letters to numbers.  Since the letters a and o appear twice each, I’m going to remove all of them and insert the number 8 in their place.  “The lamb was sure to go.” becomes “The l8mb w8s sure t8 g8.”   

Step 3: Add two or more symbols.  I’ll add two symbols between the words.  “The l8mb w8s sure t8 g8” becomes “The l8mb$w8s sure%t8 g8.”      

Step 4: Change one letter to a capital.  I’ve already capitalized the first letter, so I’ll add one more in an unexpected place—the second s.  “The l8mb$w8s sure%t8 g8” becomes “The l8mb$w8S sure%t8 g8.” 

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Step 5: Close the gaps. My password becomes “Thel8mb$w8Ssure%t8g8.” 

Now make it easier.  Yes, do that to keep your sanity. 

“Thel8mb$w8sSure%t8g8” is almost impossible to remember.  Oh, it’s a good password!  But it will do me no good if I can’t remember it.  So, I’m going to do two things to make it easier to remember.  First, I’ll reduce it to 18 objects within the quotes by taking out the two e’s.  “Thl8mb$w8Ssur%t8g8.”  Secondly, I’ll memorize it as two sets by splitting it exactly in the middle, “Thl8mb$w8 Ssur%t8g8.”  The reason for this is that the human brain can easily remember 5-9 symbols.  Also, I can switch the two sets to create another password, “Ssur%t8g8Thl8mb$w8” without having to memorize more information.  I've found trying to memorize a long string like this one is easier if I toss in some fun: every time I get a drink--water, coffee, tea, soda--I spend a few minutes memorizing the information. This gives me lots of opportunity to "study" and serves as a built in reward system.

One last note, do not leave the password on your computer or written down where a thief can get to it.  Once you’ve memorized the password, destroy the paper by shredding or burning.  Identity thieves often rifle through trash in search of information that will help them to build a profile for a potential victim.  Finding your name on one piece of paper, your address on another, a password on a third and so on, they can piece together enough of a profile to search additional information on the internet.  These folks will gladly pay for any site that will provide information about a victim.  Don’t make it easy for them to get started.
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