You get an e-mail from your friend's e-mail address asking for money. In reality, it's spam sent by a hacker who has taken control of your friend's account. The hacker e-mailed the friend's contact list, and used the friend's e-mail address to get you to open the email. On Wednesday, Google announced a way to help you detect if this kind of suspicious activity is happening to your Gmail account.
An automated system uses the Internet Protocol address to make a broad guess about the geographical location of the account user, and, if it's far away from your regular location, notifies the user.
Accessed from Poland?
"While we don't have the capability to determine the specific location from which an account is accessed," Google Engineering Director Pavni Diwanji said in a posting on the Official Gmail Blog, "a log-in appearing to come from one country and occurring a few hours after a log-in from another country may trigger an alert."
The warning, at the bottom of the Gmail inbox, will say something like "Warning: We believe your account was recently accessed from Poland." Next to the warning is a link to "show details and preferences," which, when clicked, brings up a log of account activity, the most recent access points, and the times.
If a user thinks his or her account was compromised, the password can be changed in the same window. But if the user was traveling and accessed the account from the other geographical location, a link to dismiss the alert is available.
The warning system builds on the remote sign-out and security information Google started making available in Gmail in 2008. The information shows, for instance, whether the e-mail account is still open in another location, such as when a user might check into Gmail from a second location after neglecting to sign out in the first one.
'Not a Foolproof' System
The updated warning adds the geographic information derived from an IP address, so the user can determine if someone else is accessing the account. An IP address is a numerical identification of devices in a network, such as the computer logging on to Gmail.
Chris Christensen, an analyst with industry research firm IDC, said many banks do this kind of IP address checking and notification for online banking. He said they might, instance, check to see if they recognize the device logging on, since many people do their online banking from home. The bank might deposit a "cookie" -- a small piece of software -- onto the device to help track it, he said, with the IP address noted.
He added that "this is not a foolproof security system, but then again, nothing is." Christensen noted that "IP addresses can be spoofed in a variety of ways" by a knowledgeable hacker. However, he said, "this is a proven preventive method for reducing risk" and should be seen as a "positive addition to Gmail."