Build a Better Password: Secrets to Protecting Your Identity

The worst password for 2012 was: “password.”

According to this report by SplashData’s annual list of the 25 most common passwords, there are a lot of people who don’t quite grasp the concept of identity theft. SplashData’s list is compiled from files containing millions of stolen passwords that hackers have posted online. The next two worst and most commonly used passwords were “123456” and, with a little more effort thrown in, “12345678.” Strangely, these were also the top three most commonly used passwords of 2011.

Common Password Mistakes

Creating an easily accessible password is a common mistake for a lot of people. Robert Siciliano, CEO of IDTheftSecurity.com, said that many people use first names as passwords, usually the names of spouses, kids, other relatives, or pets, all of which can be deduced with a little research.

“When you click the ‘forgot password’ link within a webmail service or other site, you’re asked to answer a question or series of questions,” he said. “The answers can often be found on your social media profile. This is how Sarah Palin’s Yahoo! account was hacked.”

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has come up with several ways consumers can be smarter about securing their identity information, including better protecting your Social Security number, surfing the Internet with more awareness of risks, and being more careful when disposing of mail that contains account information. One of the more reliable methods of identity theft is dumpster diving, which has helped some thieves find some real treasures, including banking and credit card statements. It’s often a good idea to invest in a paper shredder and to opt for email versions of financial statements.

Siciliano said there are many websites meant to infect computers and other devices and that this happens commonly when using unsecured wireless connections and outdated operating systems.

“Protect yourself by updating (software for) antivirus, anti-spyware, anti-phishing, and (install) a firewall,” he said. “Update critical security patches in your OS and update your browser.”

According to Siciliano, many hackers are beginning to move away from PC hacking and focusing their attention on mobile devices, especially Android, because it’s an open-source OS and the code is readily available to have viruses created around it.

The Persistence of Identity Theft

According to the FTC, identity theft costs Americans $1.52 billion in 2011 and has been the No. 1 complaint received by the organization over the past five years. According to the Reuters report, the number of complaints jumped from 1.4 million to 1.8 million.

But it’s not just the living who have a right to complain. The deceased are being taken through the ringer as well – they just don’t have to deal with the stress like everyone else. According to a PC World report, the IRS stands to lose approximately $21 billion in profits over the next five years, largely thanks to fraudulent income tax returns filed by hackers under the names of deceased individuals.

There might not be much the deceased can do to protect their Social Security numbers, but the rest of us can still take measures to stay safe. For example, the IRS does not contact individuals via email, so don’t trust any digital correspondence claiming to be from them. Additionally, if the IRS should send a letter, it is best to reach out to the IRS before initiating any compliance with the letter’s request.

OnGuardOnline.gov also has a few tips to help avoid being scammed or becoming a victim of identity theft:

Unbeatable Password Strategies

There are a number of ways to protect your passwords. As ingenious as “password” and the elaborate “123456” number scheme is, it may be a good idea to invest at least a little thought into protecting your privacy.

Big Think offered the idea to spell incorrectly on purpose. Just hopefully you won’t forget how you misspelled the password.

Siciliano said he doesn’t regularly change the password on most of his sites, only on the most critical ones. He added that most people don’t realize there are a number of common techniques used to crack passwords and plenty more ways we make our accounts vulnerable due to simple and widely used passwords. For those who now know they need to change their passwords as soon as possible, here are some tips from Siciliano on creating a stronger password and keeping valuable information safe:

Being untouchable online isn’t really a possibility, but taking the right measures to protect yourself will help keep a majority of hackers at bay from infiltrating your information and stealing your identity. As the complaints continue to pour in year-after-year, do your part to ensure you’re not one of the many to make that phone call to the FTC.