password managerPassword security is a highly debated and frequently discussed topic, especially considering how quickly cybercriminals are adapting to each and every new effort made by companies and apps to enhance the security of their passwords. While some companies like Google and Yahoo are testing out password-free logins, the fact remains that the majority of websites and apps you use on a day-to-day basis will require a password. It should be common knowledge by now that you shouldn’t reuse the same password for any accounts and that each password should be strong and long, incorporating special characters, numbers and even spaces where allowed. However, considering the average person has at least a dozen different online accounts, it can be difficult to retain so many unique passwords — especially when you factor in the need to change your passwords every six to 12 months. That’s where a password manager can step in and help free you from the burden of remembering dozens of passwords without compromising your security.

What does a password manager do?

Password managers are programs that allow you to securely store all of your password and username combinations for the sites you visit in a secure, encrypted cloud account. Most will install as an extension or add-on to your preferred Internet browser, such as Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox, and offer to save any new logins you enter as you browse the web. You also normally have the option to change the login information stored if it detects you’ve entered a new password/username combination. Once a login is stored, the password manager will automatically fill it in when you visit that website. To access your stored logins, you will be required to create a master password that keeps them all under lock and key. It can be helpful to think of password managers like a safe that only you have the key to. Most password managers also have apps that allow you to sync your passwords across all of your devices, that way you never have to remember a password again.

Additional features vary depending on which password manager you choose, ranging from the ability to allow the program to fill in forms for you online (preventing you from having to type out your credit card information or address every time you make a purchase) to the ability to set a trusted person to be transferred your logins should you die or become incapacitated.

Where can I find a password manager to use?

Many password managers are available as standalone products from their creators, while others come built in to certain Internet security software such as Norton and Bitdefender. Browsers like Google and Firefox offer their own variety of password management, but as it doesn’t include any way to encrypt and secure the login information you provide, you shouldn’t count on that as much more than a time saver. The cost for password managers varies, from $12/year to $40/year, depending on the service as well as what kind of features it offers. Many password managers offer a free trial, and there are free ones you can download, though you get what you pay for and might find these free versions less secure or lacking in the features you want.

Are password managers safe to use?

Given how many people use bad passwords or repeat the same passwords for multiple accounts, a password manager can be a really great tool to help keep your online life more secure — and more organized. That said, password managers are not immune to the same dangers as any other website that stores user data, as proven by a breach with popular password management service LastPass a year ago. It’s vital when using a password manager to create a strong, unique master password and change it frequently. After all, if someone breaches your safe door, the contents are theirs for the taking. It’s also wise to take advantage of extra features your password manager offers, such as two-step verification and tools that analyze your password strength and security.

People who only have a handful of passwords to remember might be best keeping them in their heads and forgoing trust in a service that has potential to be breached. However, those of us with dozens of passwords to important online accounts and applications could find the use of a password manager hugely beneficial despite the risks. After all, until passwords are a thing of the past, we have to find a way to secure them somehow. Paying attention to the security offered by your password manager, including encryption levels, is also key to ensuring success. Take advantage of the free trial, if there is one, before shelling out your money — and be sure to delete all data entered into your account if you decide a password manager isn’t for you before abandoning it.

To learn more about keeping yourself safe online, browse our Internet security blog.