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How to keep your passwords in the right hands in case tragedy strikes

How to keep your passwords in the right hands in case tragedy strikes
© Peter Elvidge | Dreamstime.com

Today I'm going to ask a question no one likes to think about, but everyone needs to consider. That question is: What happens to your digital life if something bad happens to you?

I've heard it over and over from listeners who need to get into the financial, email and social media accounts, or smartphones and tablets, of their deceased or incapacitated loved ones and don't know the passwords. In the best case, they have to go through a lengthy process to get control of the account. That can take weeks or months. In the worst case, they never get in.

And don't just think I'm talking to people on the more mature end of the age scale. Tragedies can happen to younger people, too. This is something everyone needs to think about, so be sure to pass this on to everyone you know.

Of course, the reason this is a problem is that no one wants to give out their passwords before something happens. The whole point of a password is to keep everyone but you out of your accounts.

There are a number of paths people take to solve this dilemma, and I'm going to tell you a few things that don't work and some that do.

Things that don't work

One thing I see some people doing is writing down their passwords in a notebook. The upside is that any of your loved ones can use the notebook to get into your accounts. But the downside is that anyone else can use it to get into your accounts, too.

As an everyday security practice, writing down your passwords on paper is not a good idea. It's too easy for someone else to get a hold of it, or to lose it.

Some people take the extra step of printing or writing out their passwords and putting them in a safe or safety deposit box. Then they give the safe combination to a loved one or put them down on the safety deposit box access list.

Unfortunately, safes aren't impossible to crack and in many cases, you don't want someone to have access too early. As for the safety deposit box, it's a great idea to have one to store irreplaceable documents, including a will.

However, if you put a password list in there, you'll need to make a trip to your safety deposit box every time you change one. That's not really ideal.

Things that do work

A better way is to keep your passwords in a place that loved ones can only access under certain circumstances. There are online services that help you do this, and some tools that give you a lot of control.

Many online services act like digital safety deposit boxes. You can upload documents, photos and other information that your loved ones need to have, and that often includes passwords. To get your files, the loved ones you specify need to provide the service with a death certificate. In some cases, the service allows your heirs to get the information if you're incapacitated.

Some popular services to look at are AfterSteps, AssetsInOrder and EstateMap. If you're considering a service like this, make sure you understand exactly how it works before you turn over your information.

No matter what service or system you end up using, here are a few more things you need to think about:

  • Be sure to include a note with your smartphone and tablet PIN, password or pattern. Otherwise, your loved ones won't be able to get into your gadget without a lot of work, if they can at all.
  • Learn how to hack a passcode for Apple and Android gadgets.
  • Some online accounts have terms and conditions that forbid people who aren't you from accessing your information. If your loved one does log in, even with your "permission," they could be breaking the law. Check with each site where you have an account and see what its policy is. Many companies are even recognizing this is a concern and are adding their own legacy options, like Facebook's new ability to assign a Legacy Contact.
  • Make sure the person who gets you passwords is tech savvy. You want them to be able to shut down the accounts that aren't needed anymore and protect your information from identity thieves. If you don't have anyone like that in your life, leave them detailed instructions on what you want them to do.

More tips you can't miss:

3 proven formulas for creating hack-proof passwords

How to protect your privacy on neighborhood sites like Nextdoor

5 things you're doing that put your financial life at risk

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