Google’s Inactive Account Policy and Phishing Attacks Concerns

As you may know, Google has recently begun a protocol to delete inactive Google accounts, with email notices going out to the account and recovery addresses in advance as a warning.

Leaving aside for the moment the issue that so many people who have lost track of accounts probably have no recovery address specified (or an old one that no longer reaches them), there’s another serious problem.

A few days ago I received a legitimate Google email about an older Google account of mine that I haven’t used in some time. I was able to quickly reauthenticate it and bring it back to active status.

However, this may be the first situation (there may be earlier ones, but I can’t think of any offhand) where Google is actively “out of the blue” soliciting people to log into their accounts (and typically, older accounts that I suspect are more likely not to have 2-factor authentication enabled, for example).

This is creating an ideal template for phishing attacks.

We’ve long strongly urged users not to respond to emailed efforts to get them to provide their login credentials when they have not taken any specific actions that would trigger the need for logging in again — and of course this is a very common phishing technique (“You need to verify your account — click here.” “Your password is expiring — click here.”, etc.)

Unfortunately, this is essentially the form of the Google “reactivate your account” email notice. And for ordinary busy users who may get confused to see one of these pop into their inbox suddenly, they may either ignore them thinking that they are a phishing attack (and so ultimately lose their account and data), or may fall victim to similar appearing phishes leveraging the fact that Google is now sending these out.

I’ve already seen such a phish, claiming to be Google prompting with a link for a login to a supposedly inactive account. So this scenario is already occurring. The format looked good, and it was forged to appear to be from the same Google address as used for the legitimate Google inactive account notification emails.  Even the internal headers had been forged to make it appear to be from  Google. The top level “Received from” header line IP address was wrong of course, but how many people would notice this or even look at the headers to see this in the first place?

I can think of some ways to help mitigate these risks, but as this stands right now I am definitely very concerned.