Forgetting your password and how to get back in

My sister called me recently to ask if I could help her friend’s father. It seems that due to illness and memory loss, he forgot his password for his Windows, Android phone and e-mail. I offered to go over and help to see what could be done to get him back to all of these important systems.

Have you ever forgotten your smart phone passcode?

Passwords, passwords everywhere

We rely so much on our digital systems today and most are protected by user names and passwords. Keeping track of them is critical to gaining access to devices and accounts and also it is important to have a way to share this information in case of illness or death. No one wants to think about these until it is usually too late, so some prevention is required. There are two primary methods for keeping track of passwords:

  1. Paper based, such as notebooks
  2. Digital based such as password managers that run on a computer or mobile device. These generally are encrypted programs that only require you remember one password to get into the system that contains all of the other ones

Neither of the above methods is better or worse, it really depends on your needs and comfort with using digital systems to track important information.

The forgotten passwords

Back to our story about forgetting passwords. I prepared in advance by creating by USB and CD based password recovery using this free program at
http://pogostick.net/~pnh/ntpasswd/. I went over to the couple’s apartment expecting that I wouldn’t be able to log into the computer. It turned out that there was an administrator account without a password but three other user accounts that he could not log into. Using tools built into Windows 10, I was able to reset the three accounts and returned access to the computer.

The next step was to reset the email account and with that, I hoped that it would be able to be used to unlock the Android phone. We contacted the internet provider and after explaining who we were, they very kind support technician reset the password and then I reset it again to something that this man could remember. I then attempted to find the account that was used to set up the Android phone. After numerous attempts at looking up this information, it turned out that he had never set up the phone to sync up to an online account. With this done, we would have been able to remotely unlock the phone. This mean additional techniques had to be investigated.

Unlocking an Android phone after forgetting the password

I did some research online and came up with various methods for removing the forgotten passcode to an Android phone. One type of method involves running various commands to a phone plugged in to your computer. The other are some commercial software that can be purchased for around $50 that will do the job for you.

I looked at the list of supported devices with this software and discovered that this newer phone, the Samsung Galaxy S7 is not supported. I decided not to experiment as this could completely destroy the software on the phone. I looked up some other methods but none of them appeared to be safe. I contacted a few companies that claim to be able to unlock a forgotten password. One method involves attaching directly to the motherboard and trying every number combination. Usually, if you try this option you will have to wait 30 seconds or more between attempts. This company would charge about $400 to do this.

Given that information, the phone owner decided to think about it. It’s more likely that the data on the phone isn’t worth the money.

End Result

So now he has his computer back and other family members know the password. The phone is likely going to be wiped out and then he’ll have it again. The key lesson here is in prevention. Keep track of your passwords and sign up with services such as Apple iCloud or register an Android phone with Google so that you have recovery options. It may be a cliche but it is true – an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, or in this case, many dollars!

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