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Alexander: You are nobody without a password

  • Article by: STEVE ALEXANDER
  • Star Tribune
  • August 28, 2012 - 4:05 PM

Sometimes I fear that computer passwords are taking over the world.

I began to feel that way when my credit card reached its expiration date recently, setting off a chain of events that underscored the supremacy of passwords over people. It seems that without a password, you are officially nobody.

It happened like this: The credit card company sent me a new card with the same card number but a new expiration date. I then called Verizon Wireless, and asked them to update my credit card billing information. That way there would be no interruption of Internet service for my iPad, which has a cellular modem. But Verizon forgot, and when my old card expired my iPad's service was cut off.

No problem, I thought. I'll use a Wi-Fi connection to get my iPad online, then fix the problem on the Verizon Wireless website.

But I'd forgotten the password for my iPod's cellular account. Again, no problem. The Verizon Wireless website said it would e-mail me a new one. And it did, with only one minor glitch: The new password didn't work.

Suddenly, I was an outcast. I couldn't access my account and no one could help me do it.

The friendly Verizon website computer-chat employees wanted to help me, but they couldn't open my account without a password. (One offered to reset my password again, but gave up when she learned that, on an iPad, I couldn't see the chat and log-in pages simultaneously.)

The chat workers referred me to several Verizon phone numbers. Some of these phone numbers reached live people who also couldn't help me because I didn't have a password.

I was then directed to call Verizon Customer Care. But I couldn't reach Customer Care because its voicemail wouldn't let me talk to a live person unless I had a password. I was beginning to feel like a non-person.

But then I did an entirely counterintuitive thing. Late in the evening, I called the Verizon Wireless store in St. Louis Park, even though I was sure it would be closed.

It was closed, but, being a retail store, it had a people-friendly voicemail system. Not only did it not ask me for a password, but with the push of a single phone button it connected me with a real person at Verizon's national accounts department who solved my problem in five minutes.

Who's at fault? I forgot my original password, and that was careless. Verizon Wireless Customer Care raised its drawbridge against all callers who lacked passwords, and that was clueless. But I really blame the world's growing reliance on computer passwords as gatekeepers. Can't the tech community be a little more people-friendly than that?

E-mail tech questions to steve.j.alexander @gmail.com or write to Tech Q&A, 425 Portland Av. S., Minneapolis, MN 55488. Include name, city and telephone number.

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