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I've found a number of examples on how to set up Magento to authenticate customer login but none of them seem to work and some seem to contradict themselves or each other.

For example, one suggests a block in the config.xml for the extension while another suggests a block. Some have a block in the same file and others don't. One mentions how to do this for Magento 1.3 which is fine, exception v1.4 itself is about four years old!

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I'm guessing you want to overwrite the Mage_Customer_AccountController class, specifically the loginPostAction method that handles the incoming login post action?

You can do this from a custom extension. On the Inchoo blog there is an article about rewriting controllers that might be helpful.

In the rewritten method you can handle the login action whichever way you like.

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