Please Write Down Your Passwords — Your Kids Will Thank You

Yes, you will need them again. No, you won’t remember them.

I recently got to spend the day with my 80 year-old mother, after a 5 month hiatus due to the coronavirus. I was anxious to see her, and I had a wonderful gift to take her that I was excited about giving her. My daughter and I went in together and purchased a new iPad, with a keyboard and a stylus. Her old iPad is tiny and does not have a keypad. It has gotten more difficult for her to send e-mails and other correspondence without a keypad.

The other reason I was anxious to be there with her was to see if I could figure out what she has done to get locked out of her iPhone. She got the phone for her birthday last year and it has been our saving grace during quarantine to be able to Facetime. I get to see her, which is reassuring. She has some health issues and she is good at painting a rosy picture of how she is doing when I know damn well she is lying. She has actually looked really good these last few months which has been a comfort to me.

But recently, her phone updated itself and when she tried to get into it, it wanted a passcode. She did not set up a passcode when she got the phone, so she set one up — a six digit code. That was fine and dandy until the next time the phone went to lock screen and asked her to put her passcode in. Of course, she had not written the code down. She didn’t think she would ever need it again. So now, she cannot get into her phone.

My daughter and I googled how to do a factory reset on the phone since there is nothing on there that she cares about losing. The instructions were to shut the phone down and hook it to a computer, then press the down volume button until a screen appeared and follow the prompts. Great! Sounds easy enough. But I had forgotten to take my laptop with me. So I asked mom about her laptop.

“It’s downstairs on my desk.”
“Does it work?”
“I guess so. I am not real sure why I stopped using it.”

So, I go downstairs and get the laptop. I fire it up. I am anxious to get her phone operational again and I need this thing to work just long enough to do it. The screen pops up. Yes!
“Hey, Mom, what’s your password?”
“I don’t have a password.”
“You have to have a password.”
“Well, I don’t know what it is. Maybe that’s why I stopped using the thing.”
“Is it written down somewhere?”

With this question, she directs me to the little wad of random papers that she keeps stuffed in the back of her iPad case. There, in her tiny handwriting, is a mishmash of words and numbers and scratches that it would take a cryptographer to decipher. There is no password for her laptop.

I am determined I am going to get that phone working before I leave that day, so I ask her what’s on the laptop that she can’t afford to lose.

“I don’t even remember what’s on there” she says.
“Great. We are going to do a hard reset on this thing so I can get into it and get your phone working.”

So I proceed. Mind you, I am not a tech geek. I have some skills, and I know how to look things up, but when I hit a wall, or one of those infernal loops, I get frustrated and want to throw the device off the balcony.

Everything was going fine until her computer — after erasing all the files and resetting itself — asked for her microsoft password.
“I don’t have a microsoft password.”
“Of course you don’t.”

After trying a few of the passwords she has used in the past, the computer says, “You can set up the computer without an account.” Great! But it didn’t tell me how to do that. It just kept me in the loop of ‘what’s your password?’. I gave up.

Mom said don’t worry about it, she didn’t have to have the phone right now, she has a land-line.

Fine. I will take it home with me and reset it on my computer.

I wanted to at least get her new iPad set up, so I figured out how to put the camera from the old iPad over the swirling blue dot on the new iPad and ‘BINGO’ it started importing all the stuff from her old iPad, just like that. Yay! At least that was easy. I was feeling pretty good about leaving her with her newer, better iPad with a keyboard.

When it was finished setting itself up, I handed it to her to check it out. She clicked on the e-mail icon. On her old device, the little number over her e-mail icon said 157. On the new iPad there was no number. The e-mail was empty.

Damn! I took the iPad from her to see what I needed to do to get it to populate her e-mail.
“What’s your e-mail password?”
A blank stare.
“Come on Mom, surely you have it written down on one of these papers.”

I looked at them and couldn’t make heads or tails, so I handed them over to her. No e-mail password. By this time I am ready to jump off the balcony myself.

“OK. Fine, let’s get your Facebook messenger set up.” Of course, no password. So, I thought, by god, I am going to at least get this set up. I requested a link to set up a new password. I put my phone number in to have the link sent to, because, of course, her phone is not working. I followed the link, set a new password and “Voila!” MY messenger account popped up as pretty as you please. MY ACCOUNT!

I was dumbfounded. Mom was unfazed. “That’s OK. I won’t bother your account.”
“That’s great, Mom, but how will I send you pictures if you have MY account on your iPad?”

I am so disappointed that I left her house that day with her brand new iPad and her iPhone on the seat beside me to try to get them working for her. I have not even had the heart to look at them since then. I left her keyboard and synced it with her old iPad. She is happy as a clam.

I spent the entire time I was visiting with my mother — the first time in months — trying to get her devices working for her. If she had just been keeping clear records of her passwords, it could have all been done in half an hour. The irony of all this is she can still remember her Sears credit card number- all 12 digits- 50 years after she got it and years after she stopped using it. I told her she should have used that for her password!

I have a good mind to just keep the new iPad for myself, since it already has my messenger account on it. She didn’t seem all that thrilled with the gift, anyway. At her age, she would rather read a book or listen to a symphony on public radio than mess with tech devices. I don’t blame her.

But the fact is, if you are going to have devices, and if you are going to set up online accounts, please, please, PLEASE write your passwords down in a dedicated place in legible handwriting. And when you change your password, please clearly scratch through the old one so there is no doubt it is NOT the password anymore.

Even if you think you will never need those passwords, one day you will be gone and your children (or someone else) will have to deal with all your online accounts and devices. Do them a favor and make it easy for them. They will be so grateful that you did.

Human learning to be human. Writing in hopes of getting there.

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