or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Can Anyone Help With This Gmail Issue?

   November 28th, 2012

Gmail LogoI'm hoping someone can help with a solution to this. A librarian in Florida emailed me with this situation:

I recently ran across Google's "phone verification" for Gmail account creation. Essentially, our computers have been used to create Gmail accounts enough times that patrons are now asked to provide a working cell phone number when creating a new account - one that they can use to retrieve a passcode within minutes and one that hasn't already been used to verify accounts too many times (so I can't just give them the library's number).

This is just not an option for a good number of our patrons - they either don't have a phone or their phone is out of minutes or they're saving the minutes they have for job call-backs. Mind you, the library is often their only source of internet access and an e-mail address is often required to apply online for jobs, social services, unemployment benefits, etc.

The only solution I know of is to recommend Yahoo or a similar non-Google number. Have you heard of a way around this (eg. a Google-provided rotating list of phone numbers just for librarians to use) - or baring that, a petition I could sign regarding this issue?

We haven't encountered this in my library, but Yahoo is still the go-to for free email accounts. Has anyone else had this happened to them, and hopefully found a solution to it? Thanks.

Update 11/28/12: Based on the first couple comments, I wanted to clarify what we're talking about here. It's not just logging into an existing account (I have no cellphone, so I always skip that by just clicking the "Continue" button) - it's when you create a new account. After you create a username and password and other fields required during signup, you see the following screen:

Gmail verification screen

That's the problem - patron's don't have their own phones, or enough minutes, to receive this verification, and the library phone has been used to verify too many times so now it's blocked. On Google's Verifying your account via SMS or Voice Call info page, among other things they say:

Signing up without a phone

If you don't have a phone, you can use a friend's number to request the code via text message or voice call...


Maximum number of accounts reached

If you see the error message, "This phone number has already created the maximum number of accounts," you'll have to use a different number. In an effort to protect our users from abuse, we limit the number of accounts each phone number can create.

Both of which really back certain patrons (and librarians) into a corner. What is a patron to do?

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22 Responses to “Can Anyone Help With This Gmail Issue?”

  1. Brandy Stillman Says:

    I didn’t think the phone number was required, so I just went through the steps to create a new Gmail account, and was able to skip the phone number step (left it blank) by typing in the special “I am not a robot” characters. I also did not have to provide an alternate email address.

    I know when you log in the next time is also asks you to provide a number, but there is a small link that says “skip this step.”

  2. Beverley Says:

    I’ve had a Gmail account for a long time and every once in awhile it asks me to supply a phone number “just in case” but I can skip it. Brandy’s right when she says the link is small that says “skip this step”.

  3. Allison Says:

    This is a problem for me at my library, because I really disklike the lack of usability of Yahoo! Mail. My personal phone and the library phone are maxed out. I’ve searched high and low for a solution, and I’m really hoping someone comments with one…

  4. Emily Says:

    I wonder if Google could/would do a library waiver, if someone asked the right person.

  5. Julian Gautier Says:

    Patrons at my branch have this problem, but they just get another provider’s account. Resetting your routers for new IP addresses should work right?

    I’ve actually been meaning to see if using TOR on a flash drive would work.

  6. Tom Says:

    The cell phone verification comes up when too many new accounts have been made over some arbitrary period of time from the same IP address. You could possibly reset your router and if you’re lucky get a new IP address, or you could use a proxy. It doesn’t sound like a simple problem since you have to convince Google that you’re not some scammer creating a boatload of personal email addresses.

  7. Heather Says:

    I sometimes recommend Safe-mail (www.safe-mail.net) to new email users, instead of Gmail. This is a secure, ad-free service, with a very simple signup process. The basic account has only 3 MB of storage, so I don’t recommend it to people who are likely to use it much. But many patrons whom I help to set up email are doing so only because some other service requires it, like a job application or unemployment claim. They are usually not computer-savvy and find the more complicated signup processes a challenge.

  8. Amelia Says:

    In response to Emily, people have already tried talking to Google and it didn’t do any good. You can read the discussion here


    I don’t do big computer classes I do one on one, so I don’t run into this problem. However, when I set someone up with an email, I try to determine how much they will use the email address. For people who just need it to fill out an application, I don’t normally suggest Gmail, I’ll go with Hotmail or Yahoo. For those people who I think will benefit from all Google has to offer with the use of an account I suggest Gmail and then show them how to use the other Google apps.

  9. theindielibrarian Says:

    Can they set up a google voice number? would that be sufficient?

    Or do they have to have a gmail account before they set up a google voice number?

  10. Anton Says:

    I haven’t tried SMS-without-cell-phone services, but they look promising:

  11. Reference Librarian (again) Says:

    Here is yet another example of the allegedly non-existent Digital Divide. There are folks who work in places like Google (anyone else get the “obsolete browser” messages for IE8?) who don’t understand what it is like to work in the real world.

    A new have/havenot divide is being created. I worry about all the political and social implications of scenarios like this.

  12. Ravana Says:

    Would the library spring for a prepaid cell phone? or this: http://www.macnewsworld.com/story/75878.html

  13. Tori Says:

    This sounds more like too many accounts are being created within a short time frame than too many accounts period. In a lab with IPs being dynamically assigned I can’t picture how this is possible. It sounds like there might be a problem with their network setup.

    In the meantime, the librarian could try using a webproxy to assign a new IP address. Be careful searching for those though, because the first one that usually comes up is http://www.hidemyass.com which I can see some patrons taking offense to.

    I’d also try renewing the IP address in command line and see if that does anything. I doubt it, but it doesn’t hurt to try.

    There is a way to sign up using an e-mail address from another site like Yahoo, but I’ve never had the need to do it and it sort of defeats the purpose. Although, Yahoo has been so horrible for so long I can understand taking the time to use a roundabout method to get a gmail account.

  14. Renee Says:

    One suggestion is this solution: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fsWJbr2TSbg&feature=youtube_gdata_player

    The music is super cheesy but it might work.

    The only trick I can think of is to create a new fake Gmail account, create a Google voice number, forward that to the library, then try the Google voice number as the verification number. This might not work if they don’t allow verification from Google voice numbers, but it’s worth a shot.

    And if that works, just rinse and repeat when that number gets flagged. But it probably won’t work because Google is smart.

    As far as Google living in the real world, there can’t really be a library-friendly exception because a public library seems like a great place to create lots of fake accounts.

    Which makes sense.

  15. Emma Says:

    I just can’t see why this is a problem, there are other free email providers out there so surely just advising patrons to go for yahoo, hotmail or similar will solve the issue. (Personally I think that ymail is far superior to gmail any day, so I guess I’m biased!)

  16. Arianna Says:

    I hate to say it (because sometimes I’m that person), but there are people out there who think if you’re still using Yahoo! or Hotmail for email access, you’re not very technologically savvy (E.g., See this Oatmeal comic: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/email_address)

    At least Hotmail will soon become Outlook.com, which actually may help refresh the Hotmail “image” of being a mid-90s dinosaur.

  17. Annie Says:

    I’ve seen this on Yahoo as well as Google. Not every time, but it could be connected with certain computers in our lab being used more frequently than others (people develop their favorites). Yahoo gave the same advice: if you don’t have a cell phone, use a friend’s. Disappointing all around.

  18. sharon Says:

    This is one of the reasons I stopped setting up new accounts during beginners email classes. If even one person out of 5 or 6 cannot read the captcha image correctly–and sometimes I can’t either–the class would grind to a halt. If I recall correctly, and unless they’ve changed it, you get 2 or 3 chances to read the captcha and then you have to provide a phone number. It doesn’t have to be the patron’s own phone. If we got to that point, I used my own phone, and because of the time constraint, I usually typed in the code myself.

    After a couple of classes like that, I started asking people to bring their login information to the email class. If they didn’t already have an account, I asked them to come before class and set one up, and also to review some mouse and keyboard basics.

  19. Michelle Says:

    We’ve been giving one of the Reference Desk numbers, but I haven’t run into the maximum limit error message yet. Regardless, it’s been irritating enough that I usually direct people to Hotmail now.

  20. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Renee: you know, something about that comment bothered me, and I just figured out what it was: that view presumes everyone is a criminal. That’s the same approach that DRM takes – everyone is a filthy dirty pirate and we’re going to make our legitimate customers’ lives hell so we can protect ourselves and we don’t care. I know nefarious things happen on the internet, but it’s unfortunate when companies err too far on the side of locking things down, rather that ease of use and customer service. It seems fairly trivial that Google couldn’t start an IP authentication program for public libraries that could eliminate this problem. All of our subscription databases can do it, so Google should be able to, too.

  21. Greg Williams Says:

    I agree w/ Brian; an IP verification process would be a step in the right direction (for folks who have static IPs). Other, fairly trivial technical mechanisms would seem to be feasible for folks with dynamic IPs (e.g., some sort of persistent cookie that could be downloaded from a verified ‘library’ account and installed on public machines in a dynamic-IP address environment; this is what we did when we subscribed to Reference USA, as I recall).

    I haven’t yet seen this happen with our public computers (and I’m sure we have at least a few people creating gmail accounts on a daily/weekly basis). Does anyone have hard (or hard-ish) numbers on what Google’s threshold for signups is? How many new accounts have to be created in what period of time before the verification mechanism kicks in? Is it a permanent situation, or once new account “traffic” dies down, does the verifaction requirement disappear?

  22. Erin Says:

    Thank you Ravana for the solution! Our library works with a local homeless shelter, and we help residents set up a google voice account so they have a way to receive voicemails (try finding a job without being able to provide a phone number!). We used the shelter phone for awhile, then my own cell phone, but we maxed out both numbers. I tried Ravana’s solution and it worked! I’m able to use Burner without impacting my personal number, and it’s a very reasonable cost (I estimate that the $12 for 25 credits will last me 5 months or so). Thank you thank you thank you! I hope other libraries are able to use this option as well, at least until Google makes life easier on our public.