Software, Technology

How-to: Cope with CAPTCHAs

CAPTCHA: puzzle solving on every other web pageThe web is now rife with CAPTCHAs, those funny-looking letter and number puzzles that websites often make you solve before you can access downloads, submit comments, or register a new user account. While they are a reasoned attempt to separate legitimate request from those made by spammer’s web-bots and scripts, they are a universally poor user experience. What’s worse, in the security arms race, computers have become more adept at deciphering CAPTCHAs, so they have also become harder and harder to read.

Honestly, it’s getting as bad as those Magic Eye posters from the ’90’s. My eyes could only see an aesthetically challenged Jackson Pollack.

First, some of the issues I have with the way the wretched things work.

Visually Impaired
One of my major problems with CAPTCHAs is that they are very difficult or impossible for people with impaired vision. As they are rendered on the page as graphics, you can’t zoom them, highlight them or cut and paste to read it somewhere else. Bad rendering in non-contrasting colours (bad luck for the colour-blind) many even have dotty or stripey backgrounds; the monochrome ones get put through a zig-zag filter. It’s all designed to stop automatic OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software.

Time Out
On many sites, CAPTCHAs expire after a few minutes have passed. So if your CAPTCHA isn’t being accepted, the problem might not be with your eyes, it may simply be that the current code is not being displayed. So try reloading the page to get a new code. Unless, of course, you have to wait a set time before you can retry.

With the Il1 Behaviour
Depending on which crummy font the CAPTCHA uses, a lower-case ‘l’ as in ‘lamp’ can look exactly the same as an uppercase ‘I’ as in Ignition or the number “1.” See it as the wrong character and the wretched CAPTCHA blocks your entry.

6 or 8?
The numbers ‘6’ and ‘8’ are clearly different. Until CAPTCHAs render them as squiggly lines on squiggly backgrounds to confuse automatic image readers. The amount of distortion can also confuse ‘c’ for ‘o’, ‘6’ for ‘b’ and ‘UV’ or ‘VV’ suddenly become ‘W’.

A Bad Case of…
Some CAPTCHAs don’t care if the letters you enter are upper or lowercase, others are case-sensitive. Most don’t tell you (Yahoo is a rare exception). If the CAPTCHA shows both upper and lowercase letters, be sure to enter your characters in upper and lower case as well. If all of the letters are shown in upper case, you might be able to ignore the case, but if your entry is rejected try typing all in upper case.

It can also be very difficult to tell the difference between an upper case letter ‘O’ and the numeral ‘0’ or zero.

What to do then? Here are some tips to try if you’re having trouble entering a CAPTCHA.

If you suffer from reduced vision, you can get around the problem of CAPTCHAs; most CAPTCHAs have a button to play an audio version of their text. If this is an option, you might find it easier to hear the code than to type it – as long as you have the right media plugins to play the audio.

Captchas Reloaded
“If at first you don’t succeed, load again.” If you can’t decipher it, or you’re in doubt, don’t bother to guess. It’s much quicker to click the reload button and get a new one – or several new ones. Sometimes I’ll go through seven or eight until I get something intelligible that I can confidently type into the answer box. It only takes secconds to get a CAPTCHA you can read. It may take 15 minutes to an hour to retry after a failed attempt at a bad one. AJS

Related: How-to: Use Firefox Password Manager

About Allan J. Smithie

Allan J. Smithie is a journalist and commentator based in Dubai.


2 thoughts on “How-to: Cope with CAPTCHAs

  1. It’s actually a great and helpful piece of information. Thanks for sharing.

    Posted by Fredi | Mar 10, 2013, 10:58 am
  2. If you don’t like it, get the audio read at you. Easy.

    Posted by Gaad Zh. | Mar 13, 2013, 7:53 am

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