Tracking Passwords, User IDs, PINs and Security Questions
Your spouse may have had dozens or even hundreds of online accounts and you may too. A count of my own personal and business-related online accounts exceeds 150! These aren’t just financial accounts, but accounts related to shopping, news feeds, hobbies, political interests, research, car searches and more shopping. Trying to remember all the log-in credentials; User IDs, passwords, answers to security questions, and Personal Identification Numbers (PINs), is just not practical! Assuming we follow recommended cybersecurity procedures, each account password should be unique and hard to figure out by troublemakers (i.e. hackers). To increase security, many smartphones use facial recognition or fingerprint scans and numerous online accounts now offer Two Factor Authentication (TFA), requiring entry of a security code which is sent to your cellphone AFTER you enter your password.
TIP: If an account offers TFA as an extra layer of security, I ALWAYS enable TFA. I recommend you do the same.
How about other items that require passwords or access codes? If you need to access your spouse’s computer, do you have the password to get past the Windows or OS log-in screen? How about that Wi-Fi router in your house? Did your spouse set it up? It might require a User ID and password to get into the router for routine updates or maintenance. Remember the last time your car battery died or was disconnected? After a battery was reconnected your radio system probably required an access code for proper operation. A safe in the house requires a combination or digital code and your home security system requires a security code to activate and deactivate it.
We all know what happens if we lose or can’t remember account log-in credentials or an access code! We end up wasting time resetting forgotten passwords or trying to regain account access by answering security questions or waiting on hold to eventually beg a customer service representative for help.
To keep track of my log-in credentials and access codes, I use a password-protected Excel spreadsheet. For ease of discussion, let’s call this spreadsheet a Password Tracker even though more than passwords can be stored in this Tracker. To assist you in your efforts to save online account log-in credentials, and save time and frustration, I’ve created two versions of the Password Tracker for you; a spreadsheet version for those comfortable with spreadsheets and a PDF version for those wanting to print and handwrite their log-in credentials. Either version should ease the burden of tracking potentially hundreds of pieces of information.
Using the Password Tracker. There are two main steps. The first step is the hardest and requires you to document User IDs, passwords, PINs, access codes, security questions and answers to those questions, for ALL your online accounts. The second step is ongoing; requiring you to update your Password Tracker every time you change a password or change a PIN or security question. If you don’t have immediate access to your Password Tracker, because maybe it’s stored on your home computer, make a note or send yourself an email reminding you to update your Password Tracker. If the Tracker isn’t dutifully maintained, over time it will become less and less accurate and no longer useful. I access my Tracker almost every day to either find a password for a specific online account or to update it.
Another way to ease your burden is by using a digital password tool such as LastPass, Dashlane and 1Password. These tools generate and store complex and unique passwords for every one of your online accounts. You only need to remember a single Master password to log into the tool. Each one works a little differently and there are free and premium versions.
This password stuff isn’t really a big deal, is it? A husband passing away without documenting log-in credentials and access codes is a challenge for the surviving spouse. She probably doesn’t need access to a hobby blog her husband was reading, but access to essential bank, investment, medical, or company benefits accounts is probably very important. She’ll need to access his computer, open the safe, and maintain the Wi-fi router. There may be paid subscriptions to magazines, online databases, television channels, software companies, music services, and so on. Canceling these services online might be faster than explaining things to a customer service rep on the telephone. The solution, of course, is to document one’s log-in credentials before something happens. The Password Tracker, or a similar tool, should be used by all couples to prevent a surviving spouse from getting locked out of important accounts. In fact, every individual with online accounts should use the Password Tracker. If an individual becomes incapacitated and unable to handle their financial affairs, or they pass away, a family member or friend may need to deal with their online accounts.
What to do if you can’t access an important account online? Call customer service to explain the situation. If you are the surviving spouse and the account is a joint account in both names, the company should help you gain access. If the account is an individual account only in the name of the deceased spouse, the company may give you access after you show proof that you are legally responsible for the deceased account owner’s estate. This might involve supplying a death certificate along with a letter showing you are legally appointed to manage the deceased’s estate.
Using a Password Tracker does take work. There’s no doubt about it. And the earlier this habit is formed, the better for you or other survivors. Spending time trying to regain account access or not even knowing an account exists can be frustrating or cost you money or both Time to take control!
Lessons Learned: What did we learn today about the Widowed Community Document Organization Checklist?
- If an online account (Amazon, for example) offers Two Factor Authentication (TFA), for a higher level of security, I highly recommend you activate TFA for that account.
- Document all your online account passwords and access codes BEFORE something happens to you. Your spouse, family members or trusted friend will be grateful.
- I’m comfortable using Excel, so the spreadsheet version is best for me. If you feel more comfortable handwriting your log-in credentials, use the PDF version.
- Once you document all your log-in credentials and access codes, don’t forget to maintain your Tracker! Every change must be documented in your Tracker.
- Using a digital password tool such as LastPass, Dashlane, 1Password or others, may be preferable to documenting dozens or hundreds of account User IDs and passwords.
- If you can’t access an account, call the company’s customer service number or go to their physical location, if they have one, to regain account access or to manage the account as needed. You may need to provide legal documentation (death certificate, Last Will and/or a letter appointing you as Personal Representative of the deceased’s estate) of your right to manage the account.
Jim Schwartz is a Scottsdale, AZ fee-only financial planner with an expertise and interest in financial planning and education for widows and widowers. Years of working with and advising widows, widowers, and surviving partners has provided a wealth of experience and knowledge in this complicated financial arena. He is particularly skilled in his ability to guide his clients through difficult decisions while ensuring the stability of their finances.
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Jim Schwartz, CFP®, RICP®
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