These days, it seems like everything we do electronically is at risk. From identity theft, to email hijacking, to financial account breaches, nearly every day seems to bring yet another horror story about private data being hacked, account logins being stolen, or email address lists being taken over for dreadful purposes.

Most of us, unfortunately, are not technicians, and the complexities of engineering our own self-protection in the cyber world can at times be daunting. We have so many online accounts…email, banking, investments, credit cards, subscriptions…the list can get quite long. We try to create passwords that can’t be compromised, but then we run into the problem of remembering all of them, so we try to keep the list short. Sound familiar?

If this describes you, there are some things you should keep in mind. First, the simpler the password, the easier it is to “discover.” For example, two of the most common techniques used by hackers involve “brute force” interrogation (where literally every possible combination of letters, numbers, and symbols in a range is tried) and “dictionary attacks” (where every word in the dictionary is compared to your password to identify it). With the power of today’s processors, the cycle times to execute these types of attacks are surprisingly short.

And once you’ve been compromised, don’t think those “security words” are going to protect you. Your place of birth, father’s middle name, or pet’s name can be easily identified by a determined hacker, either by direct research or by browsing your entries on social media sites. Remember, if they’re after your money, they’ll do the work! And unless and until the Federal Government gets serious about prosecuting the hackers and scammers, this nemesis will be a fact of our lives.

OK…that’s enough of the danger dialog. You know that anyway. Let’s focus on what you should do about it. The typical suggestions are: long passwords, avoid specific words, use different passwords for each account and change them frequently, etc. That’s basic advice, but it doesn’t solve the dilemma of remembering multiple passwords. This is where it tends to get complex, but you can really ramp up your protection by adopting a system that is not only tough to crack, but not too difficult to keep track of. 

Try taking a phrase or a word series that is meaningful to you, like “My dogs are Barker, Fifi, and Ruff” and condense it using the first letter of each word, then add mixed cases (mDaBfR), then add an assortment of special characters (mDaBfR!($^), equating the special characters to your birth year (where 1946 = !(^).  You can then embed in each a code that ties the password to a particular purpose, like mDaBfR!($^gm for a gmail account, mDaBfR!($^cb for a Chase Bank account, mDaBfR!($^mc for a MasterCard account, and so on.

Sounds convoluted, and it is, but once you’re into the rhythm of using this type of system, you’ll be surprised how unforgettable your passwords become (and how difficult they are to steal!) And, in the words of famed astronomer and author Clifford Stoll, “Treat your password like your toothbrush. Don’t let anybody else use it, and get a new one every six months.”