How to block hackers from stealing your passwords

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Shot of an unidentifiable young man making notes on his hand while he works on his laptop at home
This is definitely not how you should keep track of your passwords. (Photo: Getty)

If there’s one thing that cybersecurity experts agree on, it’s that you need a complex password for every website you use—and no two should be the same. Hackers go after small websites—say that mom-and-pop business you bought socks from last year—because they’re more vulnerable, according to Adam Doupé, director of the Center for Cybersecurity and Digital Forensics at Arizona State University in Tempe. “Then they try to use the stolen password to access your accounts for online banking, email and social media,” says Doupé. So if your Facebook password is the same one you used for the small business that was hacked, someone may be getting a phony friend request from you.

Your first line of defense may be to use a password manager like LastPass to help keep track of all your passwords (so you don't have to). Here are some other suggestions from the pros.

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Creating A Complex Password

At minimum, strong passwords contain several words and special characters strung together. “It’s not your dog’s name with an exclamation point,” says Adam J. Aviv, Ph.D., associate professor of computer science at the George Washington University in Washington, DC. “Instead, make a five-word passphrase of something that’s meaningful to you.” One possible example: Instead of “Rusty!” try “Rustychasesthebirdseveryday!”

But let’s face it, remembering a long passphrase for one account barely seems doable, let alone having a different one for every account you have. And in case you haven’t heard, it’s a cybersecurity no-no to write down your passwords in a notebook or the notes app on your phone. If you relied just on memory, imagine how often you’d have to hit the “forgot password” link! “I don’t even know the passwords to most of my accounts,” admits Doupé.

A beautiful young woman enjoying working at home on her laptop in cozy and bright apartment wearing yellow sweater
LastPass will generate a secure password for any new accounts you make and fill in the password for ones you’ve previously used. (Photo: Getty)

How A Password Manager Can Help

Both experts use a type of software application to keep their passwords straight. It’s called a password manager because it creates, organizes and fills in highly encrypted passwords for you. “I use a program called LastPass, and I set up my mom with it too,” says Doupé.

In a nutshell, you download the extension for your preferred browser— there are versions for Google Chrome, Safari and others. Everyday, you log into LastPass and it will generate a secure password for any new accounts you make and fill in the password for ones you’ve previously used. Once you install a password manager, you might even want to invest time in updating your passwords, especially ones for social media, online banking and email, which are desirable hacker targets. Says Aviv, “The strongest password is truly a random sequence of characters that a password manager comes up with.”

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A Double Layer of Protection

LastPass also has an extra security feature called “multi-factor authorization.” It uses another method, like a text or fingerprint scan, to confirm your identity. In fact, many online banking providers and other businesses that hold sensitive information may offer the option of multi-factor authorization, usually through text or email.

While it may seem like a hassle entering in an extra code (you just want to get on with it already!), it could end up saving you a lot of trouble in the long run. As Doupé points out, the real hassle is slogging your way through recovering a hacked account.

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