On may 17th, in the evening, I received an email from the Gmail account of Charlotte, my significant other. It was written in french (which is normal for her) and looked like this :

How are you ? Would you have time to spend by email on a peculiar situation about me ? I am in deep problems and couldn’t cope with your support.

Hoping to hear from you really soon.

Best, Charlotte

You’ll find the french original text here under (so that people can find it on Google).

I was quite busy and so immediately dismissed this as spam, and did not bother to check where this email had been sent from. Faking email addresses is way to easy to bother for each suspect email. As many people with a public email address, I often receive fake emails from myself.

But this time, the problem was deeper, as I learnt when Charlotte, the real one, called me to warn me that she could not access her Gmail account anymore and that her phone was constantly ringing because of people worried about her. She also told me about a popup that she had seen in the morning about suspect access to her account from the Ivory Coast. At the time, she was quite busy, clicked on some option that looked reassuring and went on with her day. Damn, that was bad.

I immediately tried to access the account (I know her password), to discover that her password had been changed and much worse, that the recovery email address had been changed too (it read something like xxxx1@live.fr where it should have read something like xxxx@ucl.ac.be). I also soon realized that the security question had been changed too. Really, really bad.

Without much hope, I began to fill the “last chance form” of Google. Let it be clear that if you use a free Google account (and even a paying one, in my opinion), you have very few chances to get real people at Google looking at your problem. It is quite logical if you think of the very high ratio of users versus google members : to keep things manageable, they automate administration tasks as much as possible and so, you are in fact only interacting with their programs, never with them directly.

So, when you fill the “last chance form” of Google, you know that you have to fill it as precisely as possible, so that you request pass their automated test. And to examine your request, Google is asking as much information as possible, notably : - the date of your google account registration and the verification code you received at this moment (happily, both information were available in my Gmail account) - the name of the people to whom you write emails the most - the name of the tags you employ and so on and so forth.

With one phone call to Charlotte, I was able to get almost all these information and finally submitted the form, hoping to get an answer for the next day, if I ever got one.

In fact, I got an answer under 15 minutes. I was really happy about this. I immediately logged into Charlotte’s account and went at the bottom of Gmail home page to view the little snippet of text showing if the account was open anywhere else (more info here). By clicking on details on the right of this snippet, you can also sign out all other sessions. There was indeed a session opened in the Ivory Coast (while we are living in Belgium….) so I did close the sessions and changed the password, security question and backup email address. I finally examined all settings of the Gmail account to find out that a forwarding of all emails had been put in place to the following address : tatianalabelle1@live.fr (I don’t see any reason to keep this secret….). Now I did feel almost safe, but still a bit nervous.

Time now for some damage evaluation. I immediately saw that all contacts had been deleted (annoying but not too bad) and that apparently all emails had been put in the trash (but I immediately saw that some were missing too, from the last few days) except for the responses to the fake “emergency” email. Already around 10 responses. I immediately responded to people not to take this into account. This was a bit embarassing for Charlotte, since lots of his colleagues and her whole familly and friends had been contacted. This took me around 10 minutes.

That’s when I lost the connection to the account again.

I immediately tried to login again, to find out that passwords, security questions and backup email addresses had been changed again. It was time for heavy swearing on my part, with some punching of the table.

I then did everything again : filling the form, waiting 15 minutes to get an answer, signing out sessions, changing passwords, security questions and checking again if no other session had been opened in the mean time. According to Google, it was not the case. As a side not, I was very glad that the “last chance form” did work twice. I was really thinking that it could be blocked after a first attempt, to allow further investigation. But I guess that since a human investigation is not really an option, Google chose to let the system run as much as needed. I will probably never know… So I began responding to emails again.

That’s when I lost the connection again…. Password, security question and backup email changed again.

At this stage, I was getting a bit desperate. I called Charlotte, asking her if any of our computers were open with a session (this may not sound very rational, but you never know). It turns out that the windows XP machine that I keep for gaming was on. I told her to turn it off (I did not had tim to inspect it since). Charlotte also told me to delete all her emails if I could get into the account again, to decrease privacy intrusions (even if at this stage, it could have been too late). In despair, I wrote an email to tatianalabelle1@live.fr asking to stop pirating my girlfriend email account.

I tried the “last chance form” again and it did work a third time. I did everything to try to secure the account and began to respond to emails again. It turns out that this time, I did not lose the connection again. I have been checking this regularly for than a month now, and there was no more suspect activity.

This whole story did left a sour taste though. Charlotte lost all her contacts and past emails. This is not too bad for her, she is not an heavy Gmail user (she has a professional email address too) but I definitely am. I use it for all my emails, my calendar, and lots of other google tools (Analytics for websites for example). If I ever lose my Google account, I could lose a great deal of time and value. This is accentuated by the fact that I have used my Gmail address for registering in lots of other systems too (Ebay, PayPal, Facebook, Twitter, Apple Dev Center, Itunes, some server hosting and so on). For almost all those services, if you have access to my email, you can get access to the service (by filling the “lost password” form). They will send a link to allow you to change the password and login again.

In the precise case of Charlotte, using this kind of accounts did not seem to be the plan. Some people who responded to the fake email got responses where they were asked to send money using Western Union to help Charlotte in Africa, where she had allegedly almost been raped and had not access to a phone. Not very subtle but I still felt the bullet passing much too close…

To mitigate the risk, Google recently launched two-factor authentication, a mechanism that requires you to input, on top of your password, a code generated by an application installed on your phone (iPhone, Android and maybe some others). I have activated this today. You can find more information about this here : advanced sign in security for your google account This indeed increases security, but tends to be a bit cumbersome (I often have a depleted battery, for example, which could prevent access to my emails from a computer) and does not solve other case (like somebody stealing my laptop and using an already opened session).

In the end, I am still feeling a tad insecure about using Gmail as may main account. I think it’s way too difficult to get somebody on the line to help you in case of problem. I am nevertheless quite addicted to their interface, and consequently does not want to give it up, but I will probably switch my main account to a domain I own, so that at least I could shut down the email address in case of need, but still use the Gmail tools through Google apps.

I decided to write this all down so that it could serve as a cautionary tale. You should keep in mind the limitation of your email provider and if you decide to use Gmail, you should keep as much information about your Gmail registration as possible (try to find back your first registration confirmation), and if the option is offered to you, which seems to be the case only for heavy users (probably the people using some paying services from Google), you should activate two-factor authentication. As a side note, I would be definitely interested in buying from Google a gadget similar to the Blizzard Battle net authenticators to use two-factor authentication. I would then be able to keep my phone as a backup option only.

Finally, I am still wondering how those guys in the Ivory Coast got access to Charlotte’s email account. My main hypothesis is that she must have accessed her account on a pc infected by a key logger (To excuse her, she’s working in a big structure, she not in IT and could not possibly control every machine). That said, I found the action quite thoroughly organized (notably, forwarding emails to an external email address is a step that could easily be missed during the recovery of an account), and the most distressing to me is that I am still unable to explain how those guys were able to get access to the account twice after I changed the password, security questions and backup email address from my Mac that does not seem to be compromised.

If you have plausible explanations, I am definitely interested in hearing them.

Original French Text of the fake email :

Comment vas tu ? Aurais tu du temps à consacrer à une situation particulière me concernant discrètement et par mail ? Je suis dans des difficultés telles que je ne saurai que faire sans ton soutien et apport.

Je reste dans l’attente urgente de te lire.