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Thursday, April 18, 2024

What to Do If You Can’t Log In to Your Google Account

It’s Friday morning and you think you can meet an important end-of-week work deadline if you just focus and plow through for the next eight hours. Skip lunch? Check. Turn off social media? Check. Now to login in to Gmail and Google Sheets and Google Docs to get moving on this … Wait … What the heck?

If you’re like many of us who rely on Google’s suite of business, academic, and personal productivity tools, it’s the moment that can bring your day to a screeching halt. Whether it’s due a changed password, hacking of your account, or some other reason, you can’t log in to your Google account and the many services connected to that account.

What now?

The web is filled with advice and shortcuts on what to do in this situation, from tapping your password manager to turning off two-factor authentication (not recommended!).

Rather than use Google’s most popular tool, Search, for the answer, we decided to ask the company directly what happens when users can’t get in and what steps they should take to recover their account. Guemmy Kim, director of account safety and security at Google, guided us through our questions.

How Do Google Accounts Get Disabled?

First, let’s try to understand why you might be in this situation at all.

Kim says there are three main scenarios where a user can find themselves unable to get into their account. The first is the user losing their credentials. That could mean you forgot your password, you changed your Google password on one device and forgot to reenter it on another device, or any other number of credential snafus.

The second scenario is when a user’s Google account is disabled due to suspected hacking. “If Google suspects that an account has been hijacked, we disable it as a proactive measure,” Kim says. “This is similar to how a bank would suspend a credit card if they identify suspicious transactions on the account.”

The third scenario is that Google suspends an account that is in violation of its policies. If a user has posted abusive content, or their email address is involved in phishing hacks, those would be a few of the possible reasons for an account to get disabled over a policy issue.

So I Know Why I’m Locked Out. What Can I Do?

For a password or credentials issue, you would go through the “Forgot email?” link below the login prompt or start Google’s Automated Account Recovery process, which walks you through a series of questions to either access the account through a secondary method (a phone number or other email address, for instance) or, if these methods don’t work, to create a replacement account.

The same goes for accounts that are suspected of being hijacked; you should use the Account Recovery tool. Kim says that an important part of ensuring a smooth recovery is that you have recovery phone numbers or email addresses set up in advance. “We strongly encourage everyone to add a recovery phone number to their account.” Kim added that any phone numbers added for two-factor authentication are not used for anything else, so you don’t have to worry about it being used by marketers.

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Accounts flagged for policy violations, however, have the option to have that action reviewed upon their next login. In this case, users are still in control of their account identity.

Kim says that anyone who runs into this situation should first review Google’s policies to make sure they understand why the account was disabled before clicking. In some cases, the next login attempt will display details of why the account was disabled, such as suspicion of phishing. “However, there are some circumstances where we cannot provide additional details due to safety concerns,” Kim says.

In appealing this decision, “users can provide additional context to help our reviewers decide whether to restore access to their account,” Kim says.

That process of review can take about two days.

Can I Speak to a Human at All?

The short answer in most cases is no. You’re probably not going to get a person on the phone via some kind of Google hotline. But there are cases where some users may get extra help depending on the nature of the account. Kim says that those who have a Google account through their work, school, or other group are encouraged to reach out to their administrator, who may be able to manage users via their Admin Console. If their administrator is stumped, they have their own support options as well.

Other Google users, like people in the YouTube Partner Program or subscribers to Google Fi or Google One, may have dedicated support teams to help through those products. They might be able to offer guidance or provide general help, but Kim says you shouldn’t expect them to have a magic account reset wand. “For security reasons, these agents cannot restore access to the account,” Kim says.

How Does Google Decide to Suspend an Account?

Kim says that different types of signals and patterns can factor into the decision to disable or flag an account, which isn’t terribly clear, but also shows how broadly the company looks at potentially damaging activity. Some of those patterns include signing in on a computer or new phone for the first time, changing passwords, or other events that users can also review on their account security page.

Alerts sent out in these cases allow the account owner to check first to see if something fishy is going on “and if our detection logic has not picked up on it yet,” Kim says.

When behavior points more toward an account hijacking or something nefarious, Google can force the account holder to go through the Account Recovery tool to verify their identity and change their password.

Kim says, “The idea is to let the real user back into their Google account while blocking the hijacker.”

Of course, this all only works if you’ve set up the appropriate measures before your account gets hacked. If you’ve already lost it, there may be cases where if you don’t have advanced security measures set up already—like using your phone as a two-factor login tool or keeping your recovery phone numbers updated—there may be no way to get it back. Kim suggests “ounce of prevention” measures here, as in, take time now to walk through Google’s Security Checkup tool before anything bad happens to your account in the first place.

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