Home Advice & How-ToSafety Staying Safe in Hangouts: What To Know About Google Hangouts Scams
Home Advice & How-ToSafety Staying Safe in Hangouts: What To Know About Google Hangouts Scams

Staying Safe in Hangouts: What To Know About Google Hangouts Scams

by Fred Decker

Staying in touch with friends and family all over the continent was something of a challenge even before the COVID pandemic, and virus-inspired lockdowns made it equally difficult to stay in touch even with neighbors and co-workers.  The end result was something of a gold rush for companies who make online messaging and video chat apps

Google’s entry in the category is its Hangouts app, which includes video calling, text-based chats and tight integration with other Google products like Gmail.  As with any other chat or video-calling app, it’s as safe as you choose to make it, and there’s no shortage of Google Hangouts scams to be aware of. 

Google Hangouts 101

If you already use Gmail on a computer as your email program, Hangouts is located right there in the sidebar on the left of your screen.  You can start a chat with any of your Contacts just by clicking their name, if it’s visible in the sidebar, or clicking the plus sign next to your name and searching for the right person. 

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On Android or iOS they’re separate apps, but — because all of Google’s apps revolve around your central Google account — they’ll still have access to your contacts list.  You’ll need either a valid phone number or email address to sign up initially, if you don’t have an existing Google Account, and the minimum age is 13. 

Within Hangouts you can have a video call or a chat conversation, and share photos or video clips, just as you can with most other chat apps. 

The Upside and Downside of Google

Hangouts’ status as a Google app has both positives and negatives, and your attitude toward the parent company will have a strong impact on how you feel about the app.  On the positive side, anyone who uses Google’s other products — Gmail, Google Keep, Google Calendar, Google Docs, Google Drive and so on — will appreciate the tight integration with those.  It’s much easier to stay organized when your apps communicate seamlessly with each other.   On the other hand, if you have the uncomfortable feeling that Google already knows far too much about you, that tight app integration might be a negative.

On a more practical note, Google is also notorious for “churn”:  Creating and then canceling products over a period of just a few years — or having multiple overlapping products and then having to narrow them down again.  In fact, this has already happened with Hangouts.  In the business-oriented G Suite, Hangouts has been split into the videoconferencing app Meet and the messaging app Chat.  Users of the consumer Hangouts app will be upgraded to Chat over the course of 2021, though the differences will be minimal and you’ll get some added features

How Safe Is Google Hangouts? 

The first thing to know about Google Hangouts is that it’s less private than rival apps such as Signal and Telegram.  Those apps use “end-to-end” encryption, meaning that even they don’t see the content of your messages.  Hangouts only encrypts messages “in transit,” which means they’re visible to Google.  It also means their content can be subpoenaed and used against you in court, should you ever be sued or charged with a crime.  Your images may also not be secure once they reach Google’s servers.  For those reasons, high-profile security firm AVG calls Hangouts an app to avoid. 

Aside from those structural problems with the app, most security issues boil down to your management of privacy settings.  You can restrict your chats solely to people on your Contacts list, or you can invite others to a chat or let those in a chat do so, or you can allow others to invite you.  The most restrictive setting is the safest.  It’s also relatively straightforward to block someone or hide a Contact. 

Hangouts does have one security feature that can save users a lot of grief.  It has built-in phishing protection, which automatically scans and verifies any links that are sent to you within the app.  If you’ve struggled to teach family members how to recognize phishing, that can be a real stress-reducer. 

Google Hangouts Scams 

No matter where people choose to hang out, scammers will seize the opportunity to use that new meeting place to their advantage.  Hangouts is no exception, sadly, though the phishing filter eliminates one risk that plagues other platforms. 

Most of the scams you’ll run into are the familiar handful of old warhorses, which keep getting used because they still work.  Romance scams and catfishing are two of the most common, but scammers will also adapt successful social media scams for use on Hangouts, like the frantic plea for emergency money that seems to come from a friend, family member or co-worker. 

One scam that seems to have gained currency on Hangouts during the COVID pandemic is the fake job interview.  Longtime work-from-home site Rat Race Rebellion reports that Hangouts users are receiving invitations to purported job interviews with major corporations through Hangouts’ chat function, a scam that had already been around for a few years.  The goal is to coax you into divulging personal information to your “new employer,” up to and including your social security number and banking information. 

Spoiler:  You really, really shouldn’t do that. 

Protecting Yourself From Google Hangouts Scams

On Hangouts, as with other apps, it’s your own actions and behaviors that form your first line of defense.  You can start by going into Hangouts’ Settings menu and customizing your Invitations settings.  The recommended default allows those with your email or phone number to contact you directly and everyone else to send invitations.  You can change those for people with your phone number, those with your email and everyone else.  You can allow direct contact, allow them to send invitations or not allow them to send invitations.  Not allowing invitations effectively bars people from reaching out if they’re not in your contacts. 

It also helps to maintain a healthy skepticism about people you don’t know personally, especially if they seem to be deliberately cultivating your friendship.  Taking people at face value can be a charming trait, but online it’s dangerous.  Instead, when you find someone new working their way into your social circle, use Spokeo’s people search tools to verify that the name, phone number and/or email address you’ve been given all trace back to the same person (and, importantly, that this person is who and where they say they are). 

That isn’t to say you can’t be safe on Google Hangouts or that you can’t or won’t make new friends along the way.  As long as you’re aware of the app’s limitations, and are conscious of your own security habits and security settings (good advice with any app), you should be able to use Hangouts confidently.