How to protect your PINs and passwords

We look at how to improve your security online.

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Picking a poor password

For a long time 'password' has been the world's favourite... well, password. It's recently been taken over by the equally lousy '123456'.

Many of us go for passwords that are easily discovered by fraudsters, whether it’s the name of your favourite football team or a family member's name. Thanks to public databases and social networking, your supposedly private life may be laid bare for cyber-crooks to sift through.

Another terrible password is the name of the website you're visiting. For example, Barclays customers using 'Barclays' as a password are asking for trouble.

One key opens many locks

Another problem arises if you use a single password to access many different websites. In this scenario, once I have one password, I have access to all your accounts. In effect, you're giving me a master key to open all your locks and make a 'clean sweep'.

Passwords should be unique to each website you visit and every account you use. If you can't remember them, then write them down in a coded message and securely hide this piece of paper. Alternatively, use a Password Safe such as that developed by American cryptography expert Bruce Schneier.

How to create stronger passwords

Of course, strong passwords are more complicated than weak ones, but that's the whole point. They are harder to guess or find with a 'dictionary attack' (searching around 200,000 commonly used words in English).

To create strong passwords, you should:

  1. Use at least eight characters and, ideally, more.
  2. Use a mix of upper-case and lower-case letters, numbers and keyboard characters accessed via the shift key and non-letter keys.
  3. Don't use your name, family names, slang words, swear words, words found in dictionaries and first names. These are easy meat for the professional cracker.

For more advice, read this report from online-security firm Imperva (PDF document) on the infamous hack of 32 million passwords from the website in December 2009.

Protecting your PIN

It's not just passwords where we need to be careful. To use a credit, debit or store card, you'll need the four-digit PIN (Personal Identification Number) linked to that plastic card. There are 10,000 combinations of PINs, from 0000 to 9999.

Of course, if you enter the wrong PIN three times, then your card will be locked. This prevents a 'brute force' attack to find PINs, which involves checking all possible combinations.

Even so, PINs aren't as secure as you'd imagine. This is because millions of cardholders change their default PINs to numbers which they find easier to remember. Often, this weakens the security of their cards.

To create a safer PIN, choose a random four-digit number, or simply stick with the default PIN given to you by your bank. Otherwise, you may inadvertently be putting your credit card and current account at risk of fraud.

Loose lips lose money

In short, the more you know about someone, the easier it is to guess their passwords. So be careful about what you post on social media sites. The more information you post on Facebook, Twitter and the like, the more personal data you give to crooks, criminals and fraudsters.

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