How To Create Strong Passwords (2017 Edition)

It’s more important than ever to make sure you’re using strong, unique passwords. Passwords are one of your main defenses against computer viruses, account hijacking, and other Internet threats.

Several major sites have experienced security incidents over the last year. Hacks from years ago are still having repercussions in the present because people keep re-using old passwords. Never re-use passwords! Create passphrases that are at least 12 characters long and different on every site. Use two-factor authentication where available. You’ll find more details on this below.

Why You Need Strong, Unique Passwords

Many people say to me, “I don’t need a secure password. I don’t have anything sensitive on my computer, so I don’t care if a hacker gets in.” You, my friends, are a hacker’s dream. Because it’s not necessarily your personal information they want, although they’ll happily steal your credit card info if they can. No, what they really want is control of your computer, your email address, your Facebook page… anything and everything that will let them do their dirty work from behind a smokescreen.

Selling account details can be a lucrative business. Don’t let complacency make you a target.

Strong passwords must be:

  • Not in use on any other system
    This is perhaps the biggest no-no in the password rulebook. When hackers nab passwords, they try the same account/password combinations on popular sites like Google, Facebook, Twitter. If you’re using the same password you just let them in. Do not ever, ever, ever use the same password anywhere. Before you despair, keep reading. There are tools to make it easier.
  • Changed regularly
    Yes, you have to change your passwords. And yes, they still have to be different everywhere. In fact this is one of the best things you can do to secure your passwords. Use a password management tool if you need help keeping track of everything (see below).
  • 12 characters or longer
    Think passphrase rather than password. The longer and more complex a password is, the less likely it can be cracked. A few sites may not let you use a password as long as 12 characters, so use the longest password you can.
  • A mix of upper- and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols
    Some systems won’t allow you to use a range of characters in your password, in which case I suggest you reconsider using that site. Do you really trust someone who isn’t going to allow you to secure your account properly? Makes you wonder how secure everything else on the site is.
  • Not common words or proper nouns found in a dictionary
    Here’s a list of the 25 worst passwords, updated for 2016. If your passwords sound like these, change them now.
  • Not the names of your spouse, kids, pets, or other personally identifying information
    Don’t create passwords out of information that can be gleaned about you, and don’t share information that can be used to guess security questions. For example, if you have pictures of your dog Fido on Facebook, and you also answer your bank’s security question “What’s your dog’s name?” with “Fido,” guess what? You have just given a hacker potential access to your bank account.

Examples of good and bad passwords

Good passwords (but don’t use these!)

AP@ssw0rdIJustMADE!UP!4U
Here’sAnOtHeR1FOR$You

Bad passwords

password
password1
password!
123456
<blank>
mypassword
spouse’s name
pet’s name

Password Don’ts…

  • Don’t rotate between the same two or three passwords. It’s just as bad as using the same password everywhere.
  • Don’t send passwords via sites like email, Facebook, Twitter. Use another means like text message, which goes directly to the recipient. Or even better, a phone call.
  • Don’t stick passwords on Post-It notes. Whether it’s under the keyboard or on a bulletin board, it’s exposed. Be like Gandalf: Keep it secret, keep it safe.
  • Don’t share passwords and accounts. This is especially prevalent in small businesses. Don’t create one account then share the password; create multiple accounts for each person who needs access. More time consuming? Sure. More secure? You bet.

Tools to manage your secure passwords

With a password management tool such as 1PasswordLastPass, or KeePass, all you have to remember is one master password and the software takes care of the rest. You can use the same password management tool on your computer and on your mobile devices.

Unfortunately any company can be breached by hackers and password management firms are no exception, as was demonstrated by a recent LastPass breach. In other words, passwords stored in management tools can be swept up in data breaches just like any other kind of data.

The good news is that most password managers encrypt your data, so even if hackers get hold of it, they will hopefully be hard-pressed to recover your actual passwords. That being said, you need to safeguard your master password with more vigilance than any other password you use. Please do NOT re-use your master password anywhere else! And be sure to keep another copy of your passwords somewhere safe in case you lose access to your password management tool.

Two-factor authentication

Two-factor authentication (2FA) uses a password plus another unique identifier, like a passcode messaged to your phone. This is much safer than a password alone because the second identifier is constantly changing, making it much harder to break into an account. If a site offers 2FA, you should consider using it.

However, 2FA does not make a weak password safe. Your best bet is 2FA plus an excellent password. As with a password manager’s master password, you need to make absolutely sure you have copies of your 2FA backup codes, because that’s what’s going to get you into your account if you have trouble.

Password harvesting scams

Password harvesters are everywhere. For example, you might get a spam email saying you need to update your account. This message contains links to a page that looks like the real login, but it’s really just a fake designed to steal your credentials. Similarly, password-harvesting scams can be distributed via Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites. When in doubt, type the address for the site into your Web browser manually rather than clicking on a link.

Why not take this opportunity to change your passwords? It’s the best thing you can do to protect yourself against identity theft and cybercrime.

[Originally posted in 2010 as How To Create Secure Passwords. This version has been updated with the latest advice on secure passwords.]

 

Ways To Improve Your Wireless Network Signal

ttt-logoIf you’ve ever suffered from slow WiFi, you’re not alone. But there are a number of easy things you can do to try to speed up your wireless network.

The most common wireless problem I encounter is poor access point placement. Wireless access points should be placed as high as possible, such as on a bookshelf, and away from sources of interference like speakers and landline phones.

Building construction is also a factor. Try moving your computer in relation to the access point. If possible, line-of-sight gives best performance.

If you have an older wireless router, consider replacing it. The newer devices have improved speeds and are better at resisting interference. Similarly, older computers will be slower on wireless networks.

Make sure it’s a wireless problem and not an overall network problem. If you’re still experiencing slowness when you plug in your computer manually, it’s not just the wireless. Try rebooting your router and/or modem according to your Internet provider’s instructions. Using a surge protector will prevent equipment damage due to brownouts or blackouts.

If there is a virus infestation on your network, this can also cause a slowdown as the virus tries to call home to its command servers. Run antivirus scans on all computers, and be especially wary of ransomware.

 

What You Need To Know About SOPA And Internet Censorship

You’ve probably heard the buzz about SOPA and PIPA, a pair of bills being considered by Congress. Proponents of the bills say they are necessary to protect intellectual property rights. Opponents argue that SOPA is nothing more than censorship.

This usually isn’t an opinion blog, but on this one I have to take a stand. SOPA is an abomination that must not pass.

Some are urging a blackout as a protest against SOPA. I considered it, but decided not to. The purpose of this blog is to educate people about computers, and I can’t think of a better way to protest SOPA than providing the information you need to oppose it yourself.

The problems with SOPA and PIPA are many, censorship being the main issue. But there are technical problems with these bills that make them cumbersome and ineffective. They might actually make the Internet less secure by interfering with standards that exist to keep it that way (e.g. DNSSEC). As an IT expert and an advocate of free speech, I oppose these bills and encourage you to do the same.

There’s plenty of news coverage out there, and I’ve gathered some that help explain the SOPA/PIPA debate.

This one has a list of the sponsors, so you known whom to contact.

And this one will let you contact your legislators too.

More information here:

And, I can’t conclude without pointing out that, as always, you need to make sure you’re clicking on bona-fide resources regarding SOPA and not some malware scam taking advantage of the headlines.

What do you think of SOPA and PIPA? Do you support or oppose them, and why?

 

Top Five Computer Nightmares, And How To Fix Them

Since the 1980s I’ve been fixing computers that won’t start up, won’t print, or can’t find files. The Internet adds an extra level of complexity, but we’re still facing the same basic tech support problems.

1. Your computer won’t start up.
There are three possibilities: your computer isn’t getting any power, it can’t find the hard drive, or there’s something wrong with your system software. The latter is by far the most common, and may be the result of a virus, a program conflict, or just bad luck.

First, try powering your computer down. If it doesn’t start up, follow the prompts on the screen. But don’t expect your PC to work properly in Safe Mode, which is meant as a diagnostic tool only. Once you’re in you need to find what caused the error and fix it. Likely suspects are new programs or devices. Run your virus scanner not just once, but several times. If your startup failure is caused by a virus you may need a tool like Malwarebytes to get rid of it completely. Reboot several times to make sure things are working, and make an immediate backup (but don’t overwrite the old one in case you still need it).

2. You can’t print.
Once again, three possibilities: the printer has no power, it’s not connected to the computer, or there’s a software error. Let’s assume you’ve tried rebooting and you’ve checked the cables. If you’ve printed successfully in the past, then it’s probably a problem with the software or file. Try a different file as well as a different program. You can look up any error messages or misbehavior on the printer’s support site. As a last resort you can unplug your printer, remove its software, and reinstall according to manufacturer instructions.

3. Your data is missing.
The default directory for Windows XP files is My Documents. In Vista and Windows 7 it’s Documents, as it is for Mac users. But this is just the default location; files can be saved almost anywhere. If your file or folder isn’t where you expect, try searching for it by name or date.

What if all your data is gone? If your desktop also looks different, you may be logged in under the wrong account. Check under the Start menu in Windows or the Apple menu on a Mac to see your login name.

In the previous case the data was simply misplaced. What if it really is gone? The sooner you try to recover a file, the better your chances of success, although it’s far easier to recover from a backup. In truly grim situations you might have to send your drive to a data recovery service.

4. You can’t get on the Internet.
Sometimes it’s not your Internet connection, just one specific program. But if none of your Internet applications are working and a reboot doesn’t help, it’s time for some diagnostics.

First, check your cables and the lights on our router and/or DSL modem. As I explained in a previous article, you should familiarize yourself with what “normal” looks like for your setup so you know what “not normal” looks like. Power everything off and back on, wait a few moments, and try again.

If it’s a wireless problem you may be able to connect with a wire, and this is a good way to determine if it’s just the wireless or the whole network.

5. You can’t open an attachment.
This almost always means your computer doesn’t know which program to use. You should be able to open anything with a common file type: TXT, DOC, PDF, JPG. But you might receive an attachment created in a program you don’t have. One common example of this is receiving a DOCX file, the new Word format that replaced DOC. If you can’t open DOCX files you either need a plug-in for your word processing program (typically free to download) or the person who created the file needs to resave as DOC.

Once you get the hang of common tech support problems, they waste less of your time.

 

Five Ways To Fix Your Internet Connection

We’ve all been there. You’ve got something vital to do, you click on your Web browser and… nothing. Hourglass. Spinning beachball. Page Not Found.

Never fear, many Internet problems are easily repaired. Here are my top five ways to fix your Internet connection.

  1. Reboot your computer. It’s possible your computer is simply misbehaving itself, in which case a reboot will clear up the problem. This is especially true if other computers on your network are still able to see the Internet.
  2. Reboot your network. Turn off your computer(s), your router, and your DSL or cable modem. Leave them off about thirty seconds, then turn them back on in reverse order waiting a minute or two between devices.
  3. Examine the blinky lights. The lights on modems and routers give you lots of good info. You should jot down what they look like when they’re working so you can recognize when they’re not. Typically you’ll have a steady green Power light, a flickering Activity or LAN light, and a green light for the Internet (might be called WAN or DSL). You may have other lights depending on your device. Check your manufacturer’s Web site for manuals that will explain which lights should be steady, which should flicker, and which may turn amber or red if there’s an error.
  4. Check the cables. You’d be surprised the number of times a simple loose wire is the culprit. Shut down your computer and check all the cords coming out of it, as well as all the cords coming out of your router and modem. Unplug each and plug it back in, but be sure to put it back in the same place!
  5. Is the Internet light out? If the Internet or DSL light is out, the problem is likely with your service provider. You should contact their support and have them test to see if your connection is active.

If you like I can help you document your setup on my next service visit. I’ll show you what the lights on your router represent, and I’ll label your wires in case you need to unplug them in the future.

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Solve Problems By Replacing Your Old Router

routerIf your Internet connection is slow or unreliable, it may be due to an old router.

Routers that are more than a few years old predate current network technologies. While these old routers may still work, they often don’t work at peak efficiency, and may even make your connection so intermittent as to be unusable. Replacing them can be an inexpensive way to improve your Internet performance.

I have also seen this problem with old cable and DSL modems. If you contact your Internet provider they will tell you if your modem is still supported. The trick is, you have to ask; they will not be proactive in contacting you to let you know your modem is out of date, and they may not recognize the cause if you call to report problems.

A new router can also improve your network security, as the latest consumer devices now include firewall technologies previously available only on more expensive business-class models. If you have an older wireless router (wireless B or G), upgrading to a wireless N device can boost your speed. While you’re at it, you should check your network cables to make sure they’re still good quality.

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