ColumnistsMy Turn

118 Passwords and PINs. Oh, My!

‘How am I supposed to keep 118 passwords and PINs squared away and brought to mind instantaneously when needed?’

By Bruce Frassinelli

PasswordsI admit it: I was brought into our technologically advanced world kicking and screaming, but I quickly realized that if I wanted to be a player in the late -20th and 21st century, I needed to get over it — fast.

So thanks to an important intervention by two of my three sons, I was taught how to love and embrace the new bells and whistles that would help me navigate the late autumn and winter of my life as a participant and not one watching the passing parade from the sidelines.

So, here I am as an octogenarian on Facebook, LinkedIn, Snapchat, Twitter, etc. I have a small but prolific group of “friends” on each. I tend to be more of a voyeur (and I don’t mean that in a dirty way) rather than a contributor, but when I feel I have something germane to a conversation or an observation to make, I am not shy about doing so.

One of my younger grandchildren asked me recently, “How do you like modern technology compared to the way things were back when you were a kid about my age?”

I explained that the transition was difficult at first, but once I got going I am happy to be where I am, although I realize that virtually all of my grandchildren can run rings around me when it comes to a computer’s functionality.

I told my grandchild that the toughest thing I have had to deal with is the never-ending number of passwords and PINs (personal identification numbers) we need to operate our computers, do our banking and perform other vital and secure functions of life. Put simply: It is driving me nuts. I even devised a cynical formula for it: Passwords+Pins=PIA. (I am sure you are smart enough to figure out what “PIA” means.)

I live in mortal fear of forgetting some key password, and, of course, the dire warnings don’t help. You are instructed not to carry the password or PIN for your bank and credit cards in your wallet, purse or on your person for fear that some nefarious individual will steal them.

Just for fun, I counted all of the passwords and PINs I have to operate the various accounts associated with them. I was dumbfounded as I stared at the final number — 118.

How am I supposed to keep 118 codes squared away and brought to mind instantaneously when needed? Well, the sad truth is I can’t, so I have to cheat. I write them down. Wait! I know what you are saying, but here’s the genius of my solution: I write them in code, so only I can decipher a long string of numbers that probably looks innocuous to someone who might stumble upon my list.

To make matters worse, my online bank requires me to change my password every few months, so it seems that just as I succeed in memorizing the existing combination, I get a message that it’s time for a change. Several other online providers do the same, so, invariably, for the first couple of attempts after a password change, I absent-mindedly type in the former password and get scolded by the computer.

Now, I have tried to memorize my ATM PINs so I don’t have to carry them in my wallet. (I am a customer at three banks.) For awhile I was carrying them in my shoe, figuring it would be the last place a thief would look, but it was kind of awkward to take off my shoe and fish around for the little slip of paper I had squirreled away into a side compartment. I also got strange looks from other ATM patrons behind me when I performed this caper.

As I have advanced in age, I am not always the steadiest guy on one foot. I usually need to prop myself up by holding on to something. Once I asked the guy behind me if I could lean on his shoulder. He was nice enough to say “yes,” but I can only imagine what he was thinking, especially after seeing me searching in my shoe.

After way too much awkwardness, I scrapped the shoe “solution” and just memorized the PINs. Once or twice, I have gotten the PINs of the various banks confused, and, on one occasion when I entered the wrong number three times in a row without realizing what I was doing, the ATM ate my card and wouldn’t give it back. I was told I needed to contact the bank to reset my number. What a rigmarole that turned out to be!

Password security is definitely top of mind awareness today in our technologically advanced age. Several times a week, we read or hear how important it is to have a secure password, especially since online thieves are so sophisticated.

Despite this, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, the most frequently used passwords are: “123456,” “password,” “12345678,” “qwerty” and “abc123.”

I was stunned to find out that it would take just fewer than 10 minutes for a hacker’s computer to randomly guess your all-lower-case six-character password. It would take four hours to solve a seven-character password, four days for one of eight characters and four months for one of nine characters.

If you had a combination of six lower- and upper-case characters, it would take 10 hours and as long as 178 years for a nine character lower- and-upper-case password.

Better yet is a password of upper and lower case characters and a symbol, which would take a hacker anywhere from 18 days to 44,530 years to randomly crack, depending on whether there were six or nine characters.

If you use the same login information everywhere, a hack at one website could give people access to all your accounts. If someone gains access to your email account in this way, they could use password-reset links to access other websites, such as your online banking account.

To prevent password problems, you need to use unique passwords on every website — super strong — long, unpredictable passwords that contain words, numbers and symbols.

Now, some Internet geniuses have come up with an answer to those such as me who have trouble remembering passwords — a password manager service.

Since the majority of users have very weak passwords and reuse them on different websites, the way to use strong, unique passwords on all the websites you use is with a password manager, we are now told.

Password managers store your login information for all the websites you use and help you log into them automatically. They encrypt your password database with a master password – the master password is the only one you have to remember.

Sounds simple, right? But here is my problem: I am terrified that if someone successfully hacks into the password manager’s account, all of my passwords to every conceivable facet of my life would be laid bare. I cringe at such an eventuality, so I have been resistant to this proposed solution.

And, oh, yes, after I have solved the password dilemmas that afflict and confront me daily, this doesn’t even take into account consideration of the varying usernames I have. There are 39 unique usernames by which I am known, and, sometimes, these are even more difficult to remember than passwords or PINs.

I sometimes think my late wife, Marie, had the right idea. She liked the old technology — write out a check by hand and mail it.