How much of your digital life would you lose if you lost a single password? Without it, you are locked out and the cold reality of using free cloud services like Google is that you don’t have a human arbiter to help you. If you think back to earlier times where, say you lost your bank book, your local banker probably knew who you were and could help you navigate the process of getting it replaced. When you lose your password, it’s not that simple — as I found out.
Imagine you have spent much of your digital life for the last 12 years on Google. You rely on their mail and calendar, Google Drive for storage and Google Photos for your photo archive. Then imagine that one day, you get locked out after forgetting your password.
That’s what happened to me.
Who are you?
About a month ago, I went to sign into Google. I use different passwords all the time and I forgot which one I had used most recently for Google. I clicked ‘Forgot Password’ as I always had. I was asked to send a confirmation to my phone they had on file. I did that. I responded and was asked to send a confirmation code to my email. I did that and entered the code. I was asked to answer a security question. I answered it.
At that point, you would think I had done more than enough to prove that I was who I said I was. I had supplied, not one, not two, but three factors of identification, but this was not enough for Google for some reason.
I was asked to enter the most recent password I remembered. I did that. I was asked when I first opened my account. I have no idea to be honest and it’s kind of a weird security requirement because seriously, who is going to remember when they opened their Google account to the month if it was over a decade ago? It’s not information people typically keep.
I got to the end of the process expecting to be asked for a new password. I was told I was locked out and I would have to make a request to Google to get in. I followed the procedure, waited for several days (a lifetime without access to my email, calendar, documents) and I was told I was rejected.
I’m not sure how many ways you have to identify yourself to satisfy Google, but apparently all the ways I had supplied weren’t enough. There was nothing in the email about any recourse. I was simply locked out.
No where to run to, baby
I was at an impasse and not sure what to do, but use my contacts as a journalist. If I hadn’t been a journalist with such contacts, I’m not sure what I would have done, but I had them and I used them hoping to resolve this quickly. As it turned out, it would not be quick at all.
On December 5th, I sent a note to a PR contact who I work with on Google-related news and I told him about my problem. He said he had gotten my case escalated and I should hear within 24 hours.
On Dec 7th after not hearing from Google, I contacted him again and he gave me this procedure to try, which was pretty much the same procedure I had tried before:
- Visit https://accounts.google.com/signin/recovery
- Enter Username
- Click on “Try a different question” at every step until they reach the question “When did you create this Google Account?”
- Select approximate date when the account was created and click “Next”
- Enter any contact email address that they have access to and finish the whole verification process.
- Please ensure that regardless of whether the user knows the answer to the questions or not, they complete answering all the questions till the end. Completing the account recovery process, will create a case for us to work with.
I dutifully did this and once again got a message that Google couldn’t verify the account.
Five days later I still hadn’t heard anything, so on December 12th I contacted my PR friend again, who at this point had to be getting pretty tired of being my go-between. He did his thing and told me that the reset link was being sent to an alternative address of mine.
I got an email from Google later in the day, which I shared with my PR contact:
Here at Google, we’re constantly trying to provide you the best customer support experience.
You recently contacted our support team to regain access to your Google account. Since then, have you been able to successfully sign back into your account?
The choices were Yes/No. I chose No and asked for a new reset command.
The Reset command never came.
Help me if you can I’m feeling down
On December 13th I tried getting in touch with Google by Twitter, posting my case number and pleading for some help. None came.
Hey @Google my case # is [7-4240000018376] I haven’t been able get into my Google account for a couple of weeks in spite of following the forgot password protocol, responding to a confirmation on my phone, at my email and answering security questions. I need this resolved.
— Ron Miller (@ron_miller) December 13, 2017
That same day I opened a second GMail account so I could have access to services like an email account if need be, even if it didn’t have any of my previous data in there.
Two days later on December 15th I still hadn’t received that reset command and it turned out I never would. I had a case number, yet it was like it didn’t exist.
Three more days passed. On December 18th I contacted the poor beleaguered PR contact yet again and he wrote back. They wanted me to go through the process again except using my TechCrunch email instead of my other alternative. I pushed back that I already had an open case, but he suggested I do it and see it what happens.
Reunited and it feels so good
I started the process entered my Techcrunch email and was simply asked to enter a new password and I was back in. After all that, that was all it took. I was ecstatic to have my digital life back, but I’m still shocked at a) how easy it was to lose access and b) how little recourse there was to get it back.
Once you have gone through the recovery protocol, what is a person supposed to do to get Google’s attention? They don’t have customer service, yet I’m paying for storage. They don’t have a reasonable system for navigating this kind of problem and they don’t have a sensible appeals process.
It goes to show just how tenuous our hold on our digital lives really is. If you lose access and you have nobody to talk to, you are out in the cold with little or no possibility of getting any kind of reasonable help, especially without special contacts like I had because of my job. If so much of our lives depends on that single password, three factors of identification should surely be more than enough proof to get back in.
The only thing I can suggest, and which I think I will do in the future, is to use a password manager and don’t leave it to chance. One day you could click “Forgot Password” and that could be the last time you access your Google account. Your digital life could be hanging by that thin thread called your password, and if you can’t remember it at some point, it’s like you don’t exist and you are cut off.
Editor’s Note: We contacted Google for a comment about this, but hadn’t heard back by the time of publication. If we do, we will update the story.
Writer’s Note: Since writing this story, I have discovered a faster way to recover your account.