Walt Mossberg

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Mossberg’s Mailbox

Remembering Your Password

Here are a few questions about computers I’ve received recently from people like you, and my answers. I have edited and restated the questions a bit, for readability. This week my mailbox contained questions about keeping track of passwords, getting rid of a browser hijacker and spam that harvests your address book.

If you have a question, send it to me at mossberg@wsj.com, and I may select it to be answered here in Mossberg’s Mailbox.

In my financial and professional life, I use many password-protected sites. Some force a particular syntax on me, and I am concerned that even if I could use the same password for every situation, it is probably not safe to do so. How do I keep track of all this, without leaving a list somewhere for a hacker to find?

This is a widespread dilemma, and many people cope with it either by using the same few passwords for everything or by keeping a list of passwords in a computer file, or on a piece of paper. Those methods are insecure.

One solution is to use a special program that stores all your passwords in an encrypted file. This file is itself protected by a password, but if you simply memorize that one password, you can refer to all your others whenever you like. There are many such programs, and many are free for individual users, or for up to a modest number of passwords.

Two examples are Any Password, by Roman Lab (www.romanlab.com/a pw/) and Password Agent by Moon Software (www.moonsoftware.com). I haven’t reviewed these and can’t say if they are good. Still, they may be worth a try.

Another option is to buy a fingerprint reader, or a computer with such a reader built in. These devices typically come with software that will store all your passwords in an encrypted file and automatically enter any password when you simply swipe your finger over the reader.

How can I get rid of SearchforFree.info, which has taken over my home page, and return to Google as my home page. I have heard that the former is a hijack. Is there an easy way to return my home page to where I want it?

I’m not familiar with SeachforFree.info, but it has been identified as a browser hijacker — a spyware program that takes over a person’s home page and/or chosen search engine in place of the user’s own choice. The only way I know of to permanently get rid of this kind of program is to run a reputable antispyware program at all times. That should remove it and prevent it from returning. The antispyware program I recommend is Spy Sweeper from Webroot Software (www.webroot.com), but other good antispyware programs also may do the trick. If you try one of them, and it doesn’t work, try another.

I receive spam email daily that displays in the “from” line the names of real people whom I use regularly in my normal outgoing email. I run an antispyware program daily, but the use of these names continues and it’s kind of frightening. Does this happen to everyone?

It happens to a lot of people. Some spammers use malicious software, usually in the form of a virus-laden email, that harvests names from an address book and then uses them as the fake “from” address in spam. They do this so that antispam filters won’t catch the spam, because most filters are set to allow messages from people in your address book or in your sent-message folder to pass through.

In your case, the malicious software or virus may have harvested your own address book, or the address book of one or more of your correspondents, which has many similar entries. Because of this tactic, some people even get spam that they appear to have sent themselves.

Your antispyware software isn’t likely to touch this problem. You need a good antivirus program that scans email, and a good spam filter. Even with those, however, it will be hard or impossible to undo any damage that has been done, especially since the infection may have occurred on a friend’s personal computer, not your own. The best you can do is to look for some identifying characteristic, other than the “from” line, in this troublesome email, and set your antispam filter or the rules in your email program to block messages with that characteristic, regardless of who the sender seemed to be.

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Because of the volume of e-mail I receive, I can’t routinely answer individual questions by e-mail, or consult on individual problems or purchasing decisions. I read all questions I receive and select three each week to answer in the column.

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at mossberg@wsj.com


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