When Jeneane Sessum logged into her Gmail account on the afternoon of October 27, 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 there, enough to use up almost 30 percent of her allotted storage space.
Since Gmail is her primary work and personal e-mail 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 at least several users reporting this problem on discussion boards, such as the official Gmail Help forum.
Asked to comment about multiple lost-message reports in 11 different threads created in September and October in the Gmail Help forum, a Google spokesman declined to address any of the specific situations, citing privacy reasons.
However, he did emphasize 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 Internet 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 e-mail, question why a malicious hacker would go through the trouble of trying to access someone's e-mail account in order to delete messages, instead of acting stealthily to harvest information they could exploit, like credit card numbers.
"If someone had hacked into my account, why would they have just erased some of my e-mail and not all? The fact that precisely all my e-mail from 2007 -- and no earlier mail -- was wiped out leads me to still 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 e-mail 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 e-mail space," Cain said, referring to the Gmail component of the Google Apps hosted collaboration and communicationapplication suite, designed for organizations 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.