You Can't Go Home Again, Digital Edition

Yahoo helped me get back into my long-lost email account.


A few days ago, I wrote about how frustrating it was that I couldn’t remember the password to my first email account—or, more importantly, the dashed-off answers I’d given to security questions when I created that account. And although Internet strangers were able to correctly guess the answer to one security question (thank you!), I was stuck on the second one: What is your main frequent flier number? I’d made up the answer in high school, years before I ever had a frequent flier account. The whole thing seemed hopeless.

But then, a little more Internet magic materialized, as it often does, and I received an email from a member of the Yahoo Concierge Team—apparently the highest level of Yahoo customer care. His name was Jack, and he said he could help me access my account. He and his colleagues had read my story. "We all enjoyed reading it here in our offices in Oregon. We understand the frustrations our customers have in reaching us, and how answers that seemed good at the time can come back and bite us when we need them most.”

Jack, I realized, was about to become my hero.

He said I could be officially verified by phone. So I answered some questions and gave him other information (like the ZIP code of the town where I lived in when the account was created). Finally, I convinced Yahoo that I am who I am, that the long-lost email account I wanted to get into really is mine.

Now, for the moment of truth. I typed in the new password and clicked “sign in,” eager to see what was left of my past. And I was in! But… the account had been completely purged. No drafts. No spam. Nothing in my sent folder. Everything was gone except for a single email in my inbox. A good friend had a hunch that I might find a way to access the account eventually, so he sent me a congratulatory email to be read whenever that day came.

This was a case of human sentimentality versus technological pragmatism. Where I saw a trove of memories, Yahoo saw data that could be compromised and possibly used against me. Jack had warned me this might happen.

“If it has been more than  months, we do set the email account to an inactive state and after a period of time do delete all the content to protect the account holders privacy and data. This is spelled out in our terms of service and has served to protect those customers that forget about accounts they created long ago, and would not want any personal data or contents to be compromised.”

Am I disappointed? Maybe a little. Nostalgia is a strong force. But now I get to leave the past where it belongs and move on.

But before I do that, I ask Jack the most important question, the question no amount of crowdsourcing could solve: What answer did I give for my frequent flier number security question? He told me he isn’t allowed to say, but he gave me a pretty good hint. When answering security questions, a lot of people end up pressing random keys—Jack called this “key smashing”—and it looks like that’s what I probably did. A little anticlimactic, but at least I know.

Before hanging up, Jack asks if he can help me with one more thing. “I’d like to walk you through how to change your security questions.”