These days, everyone has multiple online accounts that serve different functions—from email to banking to shopping and gaming. We apply for jobs and government benefits using online accounts, and these accounts are linked to still more accounts because you often need an email account to make accounts on other sites. All of this is done on devices that often also have password protection.
So what do you do if you have lost a password? Worse yet, what if a loved one passes and leaves you with accounts you can’t access?
Getting into online accounts if you lost your password can be daunting but not impossible. When you set up your account, various safeguards are put in place for just such an occasion.
Since so many different types of devices have passwords, the type of password might vary by device. You may need a password to access:
Because all these devices have different inputs, there are different types of passwords.
Alphanumeric passwords are the ones most of us are familiar with, as they are required to set up online accounts. Some sites also require special characters, such as “!” or “$,” to enhance strong passwords.
Numeric-only passwords are common on cell phones and cell phone apps since it’s easier to dial numbers into the keypad.
Biometric passwords are becoming more popular. Scanning devices can read fingerprints, faces, and even retina scans to grant access.
Puzzles and patterns are another method employed by many devices for their secure password protection. Users must solve or assemble a puzzle, answer a math question, or draw a specific pattern to access the device.
When you set up your account—whether it’s your cell phone, email address, or gaming login—you are often asked to do things to help you reset your password. This way, retrieving your password is simply a matter of self-service.
The most common verification method for accounts is a security question. Usually, users are asked to choose security questions from a list and provide personalized answers. Most accounts require at least two security questions to be answered. If a user must retrieve a password, the first method of retrieval is usually answering one or all of the security questions correctly. This is the most popular way of getting back into your email if you lost your password, and it’s especially important since you will likely need access to your email to retrieve other passwords or get reset links.
Some accounts, particularly those connected to devices, have higher security and require multi-factor authentication. This means going through a series of safeguards beyond a typical username-and-password login. Users may be emailed or texted a code or have to enter an in-app or biometric password in addition to login information.
Finally, it is important to make backup copies regularly of any data that’s stored on your password-protected devices. If you lose your password for your cell phone, you can have it reset, but you’ll lose any data that hasn’t been backed up. iPhones are notorious for this because Apple’s security is so strict, and getting into an iPhone if you lost your password might mean a trip to the Apple store. Each company has its own policies about accessing a device without the password.
Sometimes, the worst happens, and an account or a device is stolen from its owner. Similar protection is offered to people who lose their accounts this way as to those who lose their passwords. Often, hackers have used software to figure out a password. This is why the security questions and multi-factor authentication are important; they give users the chance to change the compromised password before any damage is done to the account.
Many people think it is okay to share an account only to find themselves locked out when a password is changed without their knowledge. It is most devastating when an account or device is stolen by a friend or relative who knows the password because it is much harder to get back. However, sharing accounts compromises their security and opens you up to this possibility.
Luckily, many devices and account types have services to help you if your device is stolen. Location trackers, such as Find My iPhone, can let you know where your device is, even if your access has been changed. In emergencies like these, you might have to prove your identity and ownership of the device. This is another added layer of security so that only you can retrieve your password if the situation becomes that extreme.
The unexpected sometimes happens, and you need access to an account of a loved one who is incapacitated or worse. An infamous example is the 2018 death of Gerald Cotton, whose death left hundreds of millions in cryptocurrency investments inaccessible, even to his wife, because he was the only one who knew his passwords. While morbid to consider such situations, it is important to make sure you have the information you need and that your loved ones have the information they need.
This doesn’t always happen, though. When someone passes, the legal next of kin can claim their data and accounts. Gerald Cotton’s situation was unique in that he managed his own security. Most people’s online accounts can be claimed simply by presenting identification and a death certificate to the hosting company. This might be a little harder if a loved one is incapacitated long term, but with sufficient evidence, lost passwords can be obtained by family members with the proper documents and legal rights.
You can avoid the hassle of having to retrieve lost passwords by using a password manager. This is an app that allows users to set up a master password to access all online accounts. The app then creates an encrypted saved password for each account and automatically fills your login with the generated password when you try to login again.
Numerous developers have created password managers as browser extensions, and free password managers are even built into some browsers, like Google Chrome. Subscription apps also have free versions that offer limited services, which still provide security benefits that can protect your accounts.
If you have a lot of accounts with sensitive information, however, it is worth the investment in your security to pay a service for managing passwords. Expanded services can help you get into some of your devices and add an extra layer of protection if your master password is somehow compromised.
Losing your password is a hassle, no matter what, but at least it’s easy to get it back or reset it. Security is important to a lot of companies because it protects your data, your finances, and even your identity. Data breaches are devastating for anyone, but companies whose job is to protect their clients’ security specialize in ensuring clients retain access to their data too.
The best way to make sure you can get your account back if you lose your password is to take advantage of security safeguards, such as security questions, password managers, and multi-factor authentication. The more security you have, the simpler it is to get your accounts back!