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Issue #216: September 11, 2011

On this 10th anniversary of 9/11 it seems fashionable for everyone to ask “Where were you when the towers fell?”  Well, I was sick with the flu in a saggy old military cot in a 10×11 foot cinder block barracks room on Yongsan Army Garrison in Seoul, South Korea.  I slept through the whole thing until someone called me and told me to report for duty, and that we were on 12-hour shifts “due to the current world situation.”  I had no idea what he was talking about.  Imagine my shock at learning what had happened while I was asleep.  Despite being sick, I spent the next 18 hours on duty, supervising operations in the call center at the largest command and control network in the Asian theater of operation.  The fear was that the North Koreans would take advantage of the confusion caused by the attacks and come pouring across the DMZ into South Korea.  Thankfully, that didn’t happen, but to this day I regret being A) overseas; and B) asleep, when the country I love and have served for most of my adult life was attacked.

Q: I have been using my email account for over 10 years.  Last Wednesday, I decided to install a new computer..My son helped me in this endeavor.  We encountered a problem connecting to the internet till this morning.  I tried to access my email account without success. For some odd reason(s), my password does not seem to work. When I asked “HELP”, it asks for a response to a secret question: “Where did you meet your spouse?” but does not accept my answer.  I noticed a message on my blackberry that was posted on Tuesday @ 12.29 pm to verify my email password, which unfortunately skipped my attention till today.  Do you believe my account has been compromised? Is there any way I can retrieve it?

– A. R.
Alpine, Texas

A: While I can’t guarantee with 100% certainty that your account has not been compromised, I think the chances of that are extremely remote.  I say that because it is not a reasonable conclusion given the facts you presented.  First of all, the only real reason someone attempts to access someone else’s e-mail is to harvest information from it.  Unless you left a treasure trove of data behind on the mail server, the source of information is instantly cut-off if the hijacker changes the password and locks you – the account owner – out of your own mailbox.  Second, you’ve described the point in time when your problems started:  when you set up your new computer.  I’m no statistician, but it seems to me that if you did happen to get compromised, the odds of it occurring simultaneously with you bringing a new computer online would be miniscule.  Therefore, I am forced to conclude that it is the configuration of your new machine that is the source of your problems – specifically, the e-mail password.  Your e-mail server is set up to require a username and password in order to connect and retrieve mail.  That’s good – it keeps your information secure.  But that security rather falls apart if you yourself can’t remember the password.  Most Internet providers (IPs) s give at least one way around a forgotten password, which is the venerable “secret question” that supposedly only you will know the answer to.  That’s all fine, but many people simply don’t pay attention when they are setting these up.  They’re in a hurry to get their system up and running, when they should be moving slowly and methodically, and writing things down as they go for future use.  The answer to a secret question is a perfect example.  If my secret question is “What is your nickname associated with your newspaper column?”  My answer might be “Geek”, “The Geek”, or even “TheGeek”.  If I can’t remember which one I entered, I won’t be able to access anything.  Worse yet, my answer is case-sensitive, so if I typed in “Geek” when I set it up, I must type exactly that when it asks for the answer — not “geek” or “GEEK”.  Passwords are the same way.  They are case-sensitive, and must be entered in exactly the same way each time, and I’ll bet that’s what’s tripping you up.  If you can’t retrieve your password through the automatic means provided by your IP, I suggest that a phone call to your IP is in order.  They will be able to verify your identity by other means, and get your password reset for you immediately.

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