When Jeneane Sessum logged into her Gmail account on 27 October, she was greeted with a horrifying sight: an empty inbox.
A Gmail user since 2004, Sessum, a social media consultant and writer in Atlanta, had thousands of messages stored, enough to use up almost 30 per cent of her allotted space.
Since Gmail is her primary work and personal email service, Sessum lost many important messages, including some she needed at that moment for a project.
Days earlier in Chicago, Jessica Squazzo, a writer and editor, accessed Gmail and stared at her computer screen in disbelief: All messages from 2007 had disappeared from her inbox.
Sessum and Squazzo are just two of a small but steady stream of Gmail users who regularly report losing some, many, or all of their messages without a clue as to why.
It seems that hardly a week goes by without several users reporting this problem on discussion boards, such as the official Gmail Help forum.
Reports of lost messages
Asked to comment about multiple reports of lost messages in 11 different threads created in September and October in the Gmail Help forum, a Google spokesman declined to address any of the specific examples, citing privacy reasons.
However, he did emphasise that, as far as Google is concerned, "most issues like this are a result of phishing attacks or compromised passwords - or sometimes simply messages mistakenly deleted or marked as spam - not a data corruption issue."
That explanation makes little sense to savvy and experienced users like Sessum and Squazzo, who are aware of phishing scams and know better than to reply to suspicious messages - let alone include in them confidential, sensitive information, such as passwords. In addition, they say they are the only ones with access to their respective accounts.
Moreover, both Sessum and Squazzo, interviewed separately via email, question why a malicious hacker would go to the trouble of trying to access someone's email account in order to delete messages, instead of acting stealthily to harvest information they could exploit, such as credit card numbers.
"If someone had hacked into my account, why would they have just erased some of my email and not all? The fact that precisely all my email from 2007 - and no earlier mail - was wiped out leads me to conclude that it must have been some technical error on Gmail's servers, whether they want to admit that or not," said Squazzo, who has used Gmail for personal communications since 2005.
In the case of Sessum, while the inbox was empty, she still had copies of messages she had sent in the "All Mail" file of her account, along with saved transcripts of instant messaging chats she had conducted using Google Talk.
For the sake of comparison, a review of discussion forums for users of Yahoo Mail and Windows Live Hotmail reveals far fewer reports of lost or disappearing inbox messages than for Gmail, even though those rival services have larger user bases.
Matt Cain, a Gartner vice-president and lead email analyst, hasn't investigated reports of lost messages in Gmail, but said the problem hasn't been observed as a common one in Yahoo Mail or Hotmail, both of which have traditionally enjoyed a high degree of data integrity in their message repositories.
"I can't validate [that this is a problem with Gmail] but if it's true, it's coming at an unfortunate time for Google, because the company is aggressively pushing into the enterprise email space," Cain said, referring to the Gmail component of the Google Apps hosted collaboration and communication application suite, designed for organisations of all sizes, including large ones with its Premier edition.
A review of the Gmail Help forum reveals that reports of lost messages have become more common in the past year, with a higher volume of complaints occurring since July.
Another user who encountered this problem was Gary Moore of Fort Worth, Texas, who had used Gmail without problems for two years until one day last month, when he noticed all his archived messages had vanished from his account, including more than 100 photos.
In Greenwood, Missouri, Monroe Johnson was also affected, when a portion of his stored messages disappeared in October. Johnson, like Sessum and Squazzo, doesn't believe an error on his part or a compromised account might be to blame.
"I doubt it. I have been working with computers since 1997," Johnson said via email. He is the only one who has access to his account, he said.
Like other interviewed users who contacted Google seeking help and technical support, Sessum only received a canned reply saying Google had determined that her problem wasn't due to a technical issue with Google systems and that she should change her Gmail password.
"I guess they are insinuating someone bothered to break into my Gmail account with the express purpose of deleting my incoming mail, while deciding to leave my chats and sent mail. Not likely," she said.
Sessum, who also uses the hosted Google Docs applications and other Google services, expected a more helpful answer from the company, considering the extent of her data loss.
"In many respects, I'm building my small business on the back of Google. And I believe that's what Google wants us to do. So it's imperative that they provide at least a little support when something goes wrong," said Sessum, who hosts her blog on Google's Blogger service.
Although consumer webmail services such as Gmail are generally free, the user expectation is that the data stored in them will not be corrupted, Gartner's Cain said.
In fact, one of Gmail's innovations when it was introduced in April 2004 was the size of its inbox - 1GB, huge by the standards of that time - so that users wouldn't have to bother deleting messages if they didn't want to.
Google didn't deliver POP3 support for Gmail until November 2004, and didn't offer IMAP support until late last month. POP3 and IMAP are protocols that let users download email messages from servers to desktop PC software.
There doesn't seem to be a pattern to the reports of lost Gmail messages, as the problem has hit users with a variety of PCs, operating systems and browsers, according to interviews and discussion forum messages.
For example, Sessum uses a Mac and the Firefox browser, and doesn't synchronise her Gmail account with a desktop email software. Meanwhile, Johnson accesses Gmail from a Windows Vista PC and downloads the messages to his computer, although he keeps copies of them on the Google servers.
Sessum, echoing other users, is hoping Google will look deeper into this problem of disappearing email messages. Its users deserve a better explanation, she said.
Lack of support
"Google's back-end support function is MIA. You can't find a number to call. You have to tap our personal network of friends to find a name and a way in through the back door, do a dance and rub a stone for good luck, and hope that someone will help," she said.
It's also in Google's best interest to beef up this support part of its business, because even users who don't pay Google for services or software contribute significantly to the company's success, she said.
"Google makes it easier for us to collaborate, work, and publish. We provide the content, the searches, the clicks, and the destinations for those clicks. It's a win-win. Until you lose something important - like all your data," she said.