Keep Your Passwords Strong and Secure With These 9 Rules
A weak password could cause problems. Here's what you can do to safeguard your many accounts.
Clifford ColbyManaging Editor
Clifford is a managing editor at CNET, where he leads How-To coverage. He spent a handful of years at Peachpit Press, editing books on everything from the first iPhone to Python. He also worked at a handful of now-dead computer magazines, including MacWEEK and MacUser. Unrelated, he roots for the Oakland A's.
ExpertiseTech from browser security to password managers and government programs from mail-in voting to federal assistance
A strong password is essential when it comes to your online security, and you need a unique one for each of your social media, bank accounts, streaming services and apps. But with so many accounts to keep track of, it's tempting (and incredibly easy) to fall into the bad habit of using the same login credentials for everything.
Use a password manager to keep track of your passwords
Strong passwords are longer than eight characters, are hard to guess and contain a variety of characters, numbers and special symbols. The best ones can be difficult to remember, especially if you're using a distinct login for every site (which is recommended). This is where password managers come in.
The tiny caveat is that you'll still have to memorize a single master password that unlocks all your other passwords. So make that one as strong as it can be (and see below for more specific tips on that).
Yes, you can write your login credentials down. Really
We know: This recommendation goes against everything we've been told about protecting ourselves online. But password managers aren't for everyone, and some leading security experts, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, suggest that keeping your login information on a physical sheet of paper or in a notebook is a viable way to track your credentials.
And we're talking about real, old-fashioned paper, not an electronic document like a Word file or a
spreadsheet, because if someone gains access to your computer or online accounts, they can also gain access to that electronic password file.
Of course, someone could also break into your house and walk off with the passkeys to your entire life, but that seems less likely. At work or at home, we recommend keeping this sheet of paper in a safe place -- like a locked desk drawer or cabinet -- and out of eyesight. Limit the number of people who know where your passwords are, especially to your financial sites.
If you travel often, physically carrying your passwords with you introduces greater risk if you misplace your notebook.
Watch this: Are your login credentials on the dark web? Find out right now
Avoid common words and character combinations in your password
The goal is to create a password that someone else won't know or be able to easily guess. Stay away from common words like "password," phrases like "mypassword" and predictable character sequences like "qwerty" or "thequickbrownfox."
Also avoid using your name, nickname, the name of your pet, your birthday or anniversary, your street name or anything associated with you that someone could find out from social media, or from a heartfelt talk with a stranger on an airplane or at the bar.
Longer passwords are better: 8 characters is a starting point
8 characters are a great place to start when creating a strong password, but longer logins are better. The Electronic Frontier Foundation and security expert Brian Krebs, among manyothers, advise using a passphrase made up of three or four random words for added security. A longer passphrase composed of unconnected words can be difficult to remember, however, which is why you should consider using a password manager.
It's worth repeating that reusing passwords across different accounts is a terrible idea. If someone uncovers your reused password for one account, they have the key to every other account you use that password for.
The same goes for modifying a root password that changes with the addition of a prefix or suffix. For example, PasswordOne, PasswordTwo (these are both bad for multiple reasons).
By picking a unique password for each account, hackers that crack into one account can't use it to get access to all the rest.
Avoid using passwords known to be stolen
Hackers can effortlessly use previously stolen or otherwise exposed passwords in automated login attempts called credential stuffing to break into an account. If you want to check if a password you're considering using has already been exposed in a hack, go to Have I Been Pwned and enter the password.
No need to periodically reset your password
For years, changing your passwords every 60 or 90 days was a long-accepted practice, because the thinking went that was how long it took to crack a password.
But Microsoft now recommends that unless you suspect your passwords have been exposed, you don't need to periodically change them. The reason? Many of us, by being forced to change our passwords every few months, would fall into bad habits of creating easy-to-remember passwords or writing them on sticky notes and putting them on our monitors.
Use two-factor authentication… but try to avoid text message codes
If thieves do steal your password, you can still keep them from gaining access to your account with two-factor authentication (also called two-step verification or 2FA), a security safeguard that requires you enter a second piece of information that only you have (usually a one-time code) before the app or service logs you in.
This way, even if a hacker does uncover your passwords, without your trusted device (like your phone) and the verification code that confirms it's really you, they won't be able to access your account.
While it's common and convenient to receive these codes in a text message to your mobile phone or in a call to your landline phone, it's simple enough for a hacker to steal your phone number through SIM swap fraud and then intercept your verification code.
A much safer way to receive verification codes is for you to generate and fetch them yourself using an authentication app like Authy, Google Authenticator or Microsoft Authenticator. And once you're set up, you can choose to register your device or browser so you don't need to keep verifying it each time you sign in.