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Google’s email password demand lets travellers down

December 20, 2016 Headline News 1 Comment Email Email

For international travellers, one of the joys of the internet is being able to receive and send email anywhere in the world simply by logging on – or at least, that’s the way it used to be.

Australian travellers in New Zealand last week, and possibly elsewhere in the world, learned that the process is no longer easy. Not if you use Gmail, anyway.

When I tried to log into my Gmail account from New Zealand, using my password, Google blocked the attempt and demanded verification, apparently because I was accessing the account from a different country. The site asked a few questions, including the special confidential questions and answers which I had previously filed with Google. I answered them accurately.

That’s when the problem began. It turns out that answering the questions is not enough. Google insisted on sending a text to my cellphone, with a security code in it that I could enter online. There was one major problem with this – I was using a New Zealand SIM in my phone while in New Zealand, with a local phone number. I couldn’t receive Google’s text, sent to my Australian number.

A quick chat to people at the lodge where I was staying found three international travellers facing exactly the same problem. They were unable to sign into Gmail or into other sites like YouTube that are owned by Google.

As Gmail is not my primary email account it was no big problem for me, I just gave up trying to use Gmail. Some other travellers, however, were seriously inconvenienced.

To make matters even more surreal, Google then sent an email to my primary email account, reading: 

************************************************************

            Someone has your password        

This is a security alert for a linked Google account

Hi Peter,

Someone just used your password to try to sign in to your Google Account XXXX@gmail.com.

Details: Wednesday, December 7, 2016 3:25 PM (New Zealand Daylight Time)

Auckland, New Zealand*

Google stopped this sign-in attempt, but you should review your recently used devices.

************************************************************

When you receive that sort of message you want to reply: “Hey Google, the someone who used my password is ME! Lighten up!” But you are dealing with a robot, so common sense is pointless. You might as well tell your troubles to a brick. You can’t email a reply, either.

In Google’s vision of the world, all travellers use mobile roaming and keep the same mobile phone number wherever they are on the planet. However Google’s world is not the real world. In the real world, millions of travellers buy local SIMs because local SIMs are often cheaper and more convenient.

Vodafone has set up kiosks in Auckland and Wellington airports for that very purpose. They do brisk business selling local New Zealand SIMs to international travellers.

You can understand Google’s need for security – Yahoo disclosed last week that a billion of its email accounts had been hacked, though that disclosure came after the Gmail problem I’ve just described, so Google’s actions were not a reaction to the latest Yahoo hack.

Surely security that locks you out of your own account is not the way to go. There must be some other way of doing it. What about the confidential questions and answers that Google asks you to provide, to prove your identity in a crisis? Things like the name of your first pet. If they are not enough, why bother with them at all?

For the record, it is not mandatory to use the same mobile number everywhere you travel. Not yet. It’s perfectly legal to buy a local SIM and it’s often cheaper, which is why so many people do it.

I was relieved that my primary email account is not with Gmail. Other travellers I chatted with felt similarly and some were busy setting up accounts with other email providers. Imagine if the only copy of your flight details was in an email and you were locked out of your email account!

Footnote: Once I was back in Australia, the Gmail account worked normally with the usual password. No demands for further verification. The hassle strikes only if you travel, it seems.

Written by Peter Needham in Paraparaumu, New Zealand

Currently there is "1 comment" on this Article:

  1. AgentGerko says:

    This is not uncommon since many companies starting insisting on sending verification codes to the phone. For example, I use my Amadeus GDS on cruise ships but now Amadeus Connect sends out a verification code. Problem is, whilst wifi is always available at sea, mobile coverage isn’t always there, so you can’t get the code to open Amadeus up. It’s all getting pretty ridiculous. Aust Post’s online system insist on sending me a verification code just so I can get in to see what bills I have!

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