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Guidry: Password managers can help you maintain security

Everyone knows that they should use strong passwords that are unique on every site, but it seems like a daunting task. Password managers are programs that help you create and maintain secure passwords.

Password managers centralize your passwords, making it easier to organize them. They use strong encryption, which makes them far better password-keepers than Word documents or Excel spreadsheets. You don’t have to remember all of your passwords, only the master password to your password manager.

Some popular password managers include KeePass, LastPass, and 1Password. These programs are available for Windows and Mac, and for mobile, too, allowing you to sync passwords between devices.

Password managers fill in your passwords for you. Many can also generate passwords. These generated passwords are typically more secure than those you might create yourself, because they consist of a long, random mix of upper- and lowercase letters, symbols and numbers.

Some password managers can help you assess the strength of your passwords. They’ll let you know if your passwords are weak or not long enough, or haven’t been changed recently. They’ll also warn you if you’re using duplicate passwords, a big security no-no.

To use a password manager you must first download one. Watch for phony lookalikes that may be malware in disguise. Once you have downloaded your password manager from a reliable source, it’s time to install and configure. You’ll be walked through the process of setting up your master password and entering your data.

A warning, however, about password managers. If you lose or forget your master password, you lose access to everything. Be absolutely certain to use a strong, unique password for the password manager, and keep it written down in a secure location.

Also, if your password manager stores information in the cloud, your passwords, like any other cloud-stored data, may be at risk. Always store a local copy of your password database. You can also print your passwords, but again you need to store the paper copy in a safe place.

And like any software, password managers are vulnerable to bugs like the infamous Heartbleed web vulnerability. You’ll need to keep your password manager updated.

For businesses, password managers offer a way to share access without sharing passwords. They can also help teach your employees better computer security through auditing weak and duplicate passwords.

No matter which solution you use, your passwords should be at least twelve characters in length, and should consist of a mix of letters, numbers and symbols. Don’t use the names of your spouse, children, pets, or other easily guessable information. Your password should be different on every site and changed at least once every three months. If a site won’t let you create a strong password, reconsider using it.

You can use a password manager alongside two-factor authentication, which uses a password in combination with a second token only you know, such as a code texted to your smart phone.

Using a password manager can maximize your security and minimize your risks. Why not give it a try?

• Triona Guidry is a freelance writer and IT specialist. Her Tech Tips blog, www.guidryconsulting.com/techtips, offers computer help and social media advice. She can be reached at info@guidryconsulting.com or via Twitter @trionaguidry.

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