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   Nidhi Taparia

'Sign in' -- the most intimidating command I face every morning. It crops up at all kinds of places online. My email accounts, at newspaper sites that require registration, contest sites, instant messengers…The list is long.

I stare at each page and wonder. What is it this time? Did I create a password using my name? Was it my sister's dog's name? Was it her boyfriend's dog's name? The computer obliges, at times, filling in the blanks all by itself. At other times it stares back, and waits patiently while I struggle and pull what's left of my hair.

Look at it this way. How many passwords can I remember anyway? If I use my pet cat's name, how many variations can there be? Was it 'Fluffie', 'Fluffup', or 'FluffDaddy'? That's when I do what I do best: Set up a new email account.

My friends know. They understand. They simply add my 'avatars' without question, whenever I request their authorisation on my new Instant Messenger IDs.

Yes, I've tried the 'Forgot your password' service offered by most email providers. My IM buddy Siddharth Puri - who also happens to be a software geek - shoots the idea down. His tale of having to write to more than 75 people with changed mail addressed gives me more sleepless nights. "Indian email services take at least two weeks to reply. I spend more time writing to my email service than using my email account."

Swati promptly mails me a link that, she says, will help me remember passwords. How do I explain to her that my memory is not what it used to be, thanks to years of turning to the computer for help with spelling words like 'tomorrow' and calculating what 5 times 14 is. CNet also recommends some password recovery software for people like me. Gauging by the number of times it has been downloaded (2,00,000), I have a lot of company online.

Archana joins our cribbing session. "It's not your fault. These services either restrict you to eight characters or have only drop down menus for the secret question. You cannot even choose your own." She recommends gator -- a free download that helps keep track of passwords and fills in registration forms as well.

 Tips on choosing a good password.:

--The longer the password, the better.
--Never use your account name as your password.
--Try to include some form of punctuation or digit.
--Use mixed case passwords, if possible.
--Choose a phrase or combination of words that  make the password easier to remember.
--Do not use a word that can be found in any    dictionary (including foreign language dictionaries).
--Do not use a keyboard pattern such as qwertyui.
--Do not repeat any character more than once in a  row, like zzzzzzzz.
--Themes to avoid: Phone numbers. Car registration.  Names of friends or relatives. Your name or  employment details. Dates.
--Change your password regularly, and never reuse  old ones.

Their nightmarish experiences have made me stick to one password that I don't change at all. Friends and colleagues cannot remember when they last changed theirs. Most have a single password or alternate between two or three every month. "Users realise the importance of changing their passwords regularly only after their accounts have been hacked into or misused," says a systems administrator working with a popular email service provider.

He recommends using a mix of alphanumeric passwords that are a minimum of eight characters long and secret questions that aren't a giveaway for hackers. For those who use the 'Save Password' feature on their PCs, here's some bad news: Those reassuring little stars (****) don't keep people out. This feature saves your password in different places on your computer, with little protection. Malicious email or Web pages -- anything you load on to your computer -- can easily carry programs to lift your data.

Even people working with computers daily have trouble getting past this stage. Siddharth uses tracking software like password guardian to manage his 15 passwords for domain bookings and encrypted email. Other options include psynch that synchronises and resets your passwords for $30. He also recommends 'lost password' for files, software and Outlook Express accounts.

Which leaves with me just one potential problem. To access this software, you have to enter your password!

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