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My New Password Is ... @#$%!

I cannot recall a single instance when my parents needed a password. We need them for everything.

I'm an early adopter. I was first on my block to own a computer, to buy Windows 95 and to possess a Palm. I own not one iPod but four. Lately, however, technology and the systems it spawns have me feeling like an idiot. I am confused, lost, scared and unsure what to do. I am speaking of passwords, the curse that is destroying our society.


I cannot recall a single instance when my parents needed a password. We need them for everything -- to access our accounts with banks, mutual funds, stockbrokers, credit-card issuers, utilities and retailers. To pay parking tickets and property taxes. To get cash. The first password I needed was for a bank debit card. I wanted simplicity, so I chose a four-letter word. A short time later, I needed to come up with another password for something else, and then another. Each time I used the same four-letter word and felt pretty smart.

Soon some information provider demanded that I give it a six- to eight-letter password. Okay -- I used a seven-letter variation of the four-letter word, keeping my system intact. Then came a requirement that the password be a combination of letters and numbers. Then numbers only. One site demands that I change passwords every 90 days and not repeat old passwords.

My log-on identity was simple, too. With a name like mine, which only one other person in the world has, it became ffrailey as in That is, until my bank said it had to be eight numbers, no two consecutive numbers being the same. How am I to remember that?


It gets more complicated. I pay the bills for my family. To see old statements from some of my wife's credit-card issuers, I created accounts in her name. For some I used her name for logging on, for others my own, and soon I got confused about which account used which.

To keep track of everything, I used my Palm to store the essential information, which was duplicated on the Palm Desktop of my home computer. I worried about losing the Palm and with it the keys to our financial castles. In fact, I did lose it twice -- and each time the finder returned it. Then the unthinkable happened: The Palm's battery drained and all memory was lost. At almost the same time, the hard drive of my computer went berserk, forcing me to reformat it and wipe out Palm Desktop. So it was start-all-over-again time. I clicked on "Forgot Your Password?" on site after site and, after what seemed an eternity, repopulated my Palm.

Still, I don't like the idea of entrusting all my log-on names and passwords to a device I am always misplacing. One co-worker puts all of his passwords into a protected computer file and hopes he doesn't forget its password. Another writes it all on a sheet of paper and hopes she doesn't forget where she hides it. Microsoft Passport was meant to be a one-log-on gateway to all sorts of places, but Passport has its own problems. Besides, can you trust Microsoft to keep your financial secrets?

No wonder men go bald

My wife and I met last night with our financial planner. He explained his new system: One user name and password to see our brokerage account containing our savings, another set to go to the place that runs reports generated by the planner, and a third to reach the repository of old reports. By this morning, I had mixed them all in my mind and had to call for help. This could be the story of the rest of my life.

Fred W. Frailey is editor of Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine.