Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Today's Tech Support Calls: Email and passwords

The second client for today was having trouble accessing their email. As is sometimes the case, I couldn't tell exactly why this was, but it appeared that after years of using the stored password in their email program, something had changed. My first test of logging in via webmail showed that it wasn't their email program that causing the troubles,though. Using the passwords we thought were correct still resulted in the error, "unknown user or invalid password."

When the cause of a problem is not obvious, I typically move on to finding a solution by changing something fundamental. In this case, that meant changing the passwords for the email accounts. I did this with one account and then tested it in webmail. Sure enough, I was able to log in correctly. So, for whatever reason, the passwords the clients thought they had were no longer correct. I then changed the passwords for two other effected accounts. Then I re-loaded the correct information into their email client.

Easy to forget passwords and a master password list

Of course, one of the issues with stored passwords is the same thing we experience with speed dials on our telephones -- eventually we forget the associated usernames, passwords or telephone numbers. One way of protecting yourself is to keep a list of passwords available in case you need them. You don't want to do this on paper, though, unless you have a secure place to store the list. There are several password "vault" programs available for Windows and Mac, but you might find that saving your passwords in a password protected MS Word or Excel spreadsheet might work, too. Make sure the master password you choose for this file is pretty secure, using letters, numbers and symbols. The security on these documents isn't perfect, but it is good enough to keep out all but determined hackers.

Passwords that serve multiple purposes

On another password note, it is important to remember that changing one password can effect other services. I know from experience with my clients that on AT&T Broadband services (formerly SBC Global) the password for your main email address is also the password for your DSL account. Changing your email address can result in knocking out your entire Internet connection if you are using PPPoE (Point to Point Protocol over Ethernet)or a router that uses PPPoE. Before changing a password be sure to investigate any other services that might rely on that password.

Change passwords frequently

As much trouble as it might be, one of the best ways to insure higher security on your online accounts is changing your passwords regularly. Make sure the passwords are as secure as you can make them, while still being able to remember them. Changes in uppercase and lowercase, replacing letters with numbers and using symbols increases the security of a password dramatically. Finally, don't use the same password for all your services. This would allow someone to access nearly all of your accounts, once they discover your "usual" password. At the very least, don't use your "usual" password for critical accounts like banking, brokerage, insurance or medial accounts. These are too important to trust to anything but a unique, secure password.

Where do you change passwords?

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this question. Each web site, each system usually has their own method for changing passwords and some are difficult to find. In some cases, you might need to contact the service via phone or email to learn how to change your password. If it isn't obvious, try searching the sites help pages.

Do you have any questions about passwords? Leave them as comments. I would love to hear your most pressing questions. Click the word Comments, below.

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