When someone hacks into your Blogspot account, what recourse do you have if nobody at Google will speak to you?
As horrifying as it would be to have your credit card stolen and used by someone to make unauthorized purchases, at least you can take refuge in the fact that your credit card company likely has a customer service number — perhaps one available 24/7 — that you can call to rectify the problem. Credit cards can be canceled and charges reversed. But Jerry Remmers met what may be a much more troubling problem when he received a call late last week from a friend of his. The friend asked about a bizarre, poorly-worded email he had just received from Remmers’s Gmail address claiming that the California resident was stranded overseas and desperately needed money to get back to the States.
By now you’ve probably heard this story enough times to guess that Remmers’s Gmail account had been hacked. In fact, he knows exactly how the hacker gained access to the account; Remmers had fallen for a phishing scam in which he was told that if he didn’t send in his username and password then Google would shut down his account. He had received similar emails in the past — all of which he had ignored — but this one happened to hit him at the right time and he failed to sniff out the ruse.
Having your email address hacked is terrible enough by itself. Not only does the hacker have access to all your contacts and your very online identity, but people use their email addresses when they sign up for all kinds of services, from e-commerce sites to social networks. A savvy hacker could use information and “forgot my password” links to wreak all sorts of havoc that reaches far beyond simple scam emails asking your friends for money. My own Gmail account was hacked a few weeks ago and even after I changed all my passwords and secured my account I experienced paranoia for almost a week. The feeling of violation and embarrassment is indescribable. But by using a Google-owned email address Remmers faced an added layer of complications; because Google holds an increasing monopoly on all kinds of services, from RSS readers to web analytics, gaining access to a Gmail account means access to virtually every Google account a person owns. So when the hacker decided to change Remmers’ password settings, he was locked out of his Blogspot blog as well.
Remmers, a former editor for the defunct San Diego Evening Tribune, is now wheelchair-bound and faces several health problems. He launched his blog, The Remmers Report, about three years ago to publish his personal perspective on economical and political issues. For awhile now he’s been cross posting his work to the Moderate Voice as well. Not long after his friend called about the fraudulent emails, he found that it became impossible to access any of his Google accounts.
“At that point, just out of curiosity, I went to Google and called up my blog,” he told me in a phone interview. “And it gave my blog but of course I didnâ€™t have any administrative powers. I couldn’t edit or modify or publish anything. I was just an outside observer. But then yesterday Google removed the blog all together. Now if you access the blog, Google just says it was shut down.”
The default message offered from Blogspot doesn’t explain why the blog was shuttered, but I’m guessing that if enough of the fraudulent emails were marked as spam then Google might have closed the entire account, including all the other products affiliated with it. And unlike the hypothetical credit card theft I mentioned above, there wasn’t much Remmers could do about it.
As we hand over more and more of our online identities to monoliths like Google and Facebook, we do so without the comfort of a toll free telephone number to call if something goes wrong, not even from an outsourced call center in India. Because many of the services from these online giants are free, we’re technically not customers — we’re users — so there’s no immediate incentive for the companies to hire customer services reps. While Google has online forms you can fill out for when troubleshooting doesn’t work, there can be a long wait before you receive anything resembling a human response. Remmers said he went through various password recovery processes but has yet to hear back. Meanwhile his blog — and three years of archives — is inaccessible.
“Not being really good at computers and having a difficult time navigating the web under normal circumstances, when thereâ€™s a problem such as this I would really appreciate to talk directly to a technician,” Remmers said. “But Google doesnâ€™t offer that, and the best you can do is talk to a computer, and Iâ€™m getting nowhere with that … I donâ€™t think itâ€™s very responsible of these companies. I really think that even though theyâ€™re providing a free service theyâ€™re shirking their duties with a program they set up. Thereâ€™s no excuse why these corporations couldnâ€™t respond to these problems a little better, and a little bit more directly to their customers.”
Given the burgeoning role that blogs play in the current media environment, Remmers’s case has alarming implications. A few years ago I interviewed several anti-Obama bloggers who had their Blogspot blogs shut down after they were flagged as spam. After my story gained attention from outlets like the New York Times, Google quickly reinstated the blogs and offered a vague explanation as to why their spam filters just happened to trip on a very specific subset of political blogs — all of which coincidentally expressed the exact same political ideology.
But like many of those bloggers I interviewed, Remmers doesn’t plan to stick with Blogspot. His greatest fear is that all his previous posts are now lost and he’s currently exploring other blogging platforms.
“I need my son to help set me up on WordPress, and Iâ€™m willing to give it a try,” he told me. “I donâ€™t know if I can retrieve the vast proportion of those earlier blog posts I wrote to transfer into WordPress other than collecting them manually and spending a day copy and pasting from the [Moderate Voice] archives to my archives.”
Meanwhile he’s pretty much given up on gaining access to his Gmail account. He’s advised all his friends to mark all fraudulent emails as spam and has given out a new address. By the time someone at Google finally gets around to reading his panicked request for help, the embers will have already cooled. When it comes to his compromised online identity, he figures it’s just easier to start anew.
Follow me on Twitter