home icon

How to Create a Smart, Secure Password

Steps to keep your online accounts safe — plus where to store passwords

By Besty Mikel | July 19, 2013

This article originally appeared on SeniorPlanet.org.
 
If you spend even a little time on the Web, you know you can’t avoid having to come up with passwords. It seems like everything you do requires you to create one: your email, Facebook, iTunes and all online shopping sites, just to name a few.
 
Passwords might seem like an annoyance, but of course they help keep your personal information safe from hackers who are up to no good. You should think of a strong online password as a burglar-proof, fireproof, triple-locked safe for your personal documents. It’s not likely that you’ll be burglarized, but you’d rather be safe than sorry.
 
So although you might be tempted to go with an easy-to-remember password like “12345” or even the word "password," it’s a good idea to come up with something that’s harder to guess. Passwords like "12345" aren’t only simple for you — they’re also the easiest ones for someone to figure out.
 
This also goes for using the same password for all your accounts: That might be easy for you, but it isn’t safe. If one account is compromised because someone figures out the password, then all of them become vulnerable to attack. For safety, every account should have its own unique password. Also, you should change "sensitive" accounts, like your online banking, every few months to further thwart hackers.
 
(MORE: 7 Steps to Protect Your Online Security)
 
Password Dos and Don’ts
 
There are some guidelines for creating a strong password as well as ways to remember all your new (or old) passwords. Online passwords should:

  • Contain at least eight characters, preferably more.
  • Be composed of a combination of letters, numbers and symbols (like * or $ or #).
  • Include a combination of uppercase and lowercase letters.
  • Not be an actual word.
  • Not use your real name, username or personal information, like your birthday, license plate number or address.
 
How to Create a Strong Password: Method 1
 
Start with something that is memorable to you: a phrase, a date or a hobby. For demonstration purposes, I’m going to use the phrase "Cooking is fun." Next I’m going to take the following steps. (Note: You can do any or all of these.)
  • Replace each s with $.
  • Replace each space with %.
  • Replace o with 0 (the number zero).
  • Replace each i with !.
  • And so "Cooking is fun" is now C00k!ng%!s%fun.
 
(MORE: What I Did When My Email Was Hacked, Besides Panic)
 
How to Create a Strong Password: Method 2
  1. Think of a group of names that are related to each other: your children, pets or siblings. For our purposes, let’s say my siblings are Jessica, Jenny and John.
  2. Combine the first couple letters of each to form one word. It may look like gibberish to someone else, but it’s meaningful to you. “Jessica Jenny John Betsy” becomes JeJeJoBe.
  3. Remember that strong passwords also include punctuation and numbers. So I am going to add a few to my password, using my favorite number and a smiley face emoticon to make it JeJeJoBe27:-).
How to Create a Strong Password: Method 3
 
If it feels too complicated to come up with a password using the methods above, you can get one from an automatic password generator. These websites use computer algorithms to create random passwords, and they don’t send or store the passwords. Here’s how to use a password generator:
  1. Go to strongpasswordgenerator.com or random.org/passwords.
  2. Follow the instructions to select the number of characters you want your password to be.
  3. After you click the “get password” or “generate strong password” button, you will be given a safe, strong password you can use.
Remembering Your Password
 
By now, hopefully you have a few strong passwords. The tricky part is remembering them so you can actually access your accounts.
 
Some people will write their passwords on a Post-it note and stick it to their computer monitor, under their mouse pad or under their desk. This is not a safe method. If you locked your valuables in a heavy-duty safe, would you write the combination on a Post-it note and stick it to the safe? Probably not! It doesn’t matter how strong the safe is if you give away the combination.
 
It’s OK to write down your passwords to remember them, but make sure you hide the paper well. Here are a few places you could write down your passwords in case you forget them:
  • In a cookbook on the page of your favorite recipe.
  • Inside a favorite book.
  • On the back of a picture.
  • On a sheet of paper that you lock in a safe.
 
Don’t email your passwords to yourself; if hackers get into your email account, they have access to all your accounts. And don’t keep your passwords on a document on your computer’s hard drive; that would be a little bit like putting them on a Post-it on your computer screen.
 
Got a tech question? Email it to editor@seniorplanet.com.

Betsy Mikel is a regular contributor to SeniorPlanet.com and is one of the site's Teksperts.