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SPEAKING WITH THE ENEMY

Ben Nunnally: A peek behind the curtain of a telemarketing scam

Spam Risk

A cell phone shows a Spam Risk, notifying the user of potential danger. Photo by Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star

Of all modern life’s worst insults, the scam robocall is near the top of the list. 

The phone rings, a local number pops up, you answer the phone — “We’ve been trying to reach you about your car’s extended warranty,” says a chipper robot in near-human cadence. I assure you, droid, I’m aware you’ve been trying to reach me every single day — at work, at home, at the movies. You’ve been trying to reach everybody else, too — around 26 billion times in 2018, according to a Washington Post story from January 2019

“Press 1 to be connected to an operator; press 2 to be placed on our ‘do not call list,’” says the cheerful automaton. I swear on Asimov’s laws of robotics, I have pressed 2, machine. America has pressed 2. But the calls still come. 

Lately, though, I’ve taken to pressing 1 instead, to get a human on the phone. I tell them who I am and where I work and that I want to interview them. They’re used to hateful strings of profanity — no, steel cables of it — and I can’t muster up anything they haven’t heard before, let alone something to hurt their feelings. So I ask as politely as I can — at work, at home, at the movies — if they’ll tell me why they took this gig. 

And they hang up. 

But after months of trying, it finally worked. 

A call came through the newsroom tip line just a few minutes before we closed up shop on Dec. 12, alerting me that my Social Security number had been “frozen due to suspicious activity.” Of course, I pressed 1. 

That Thursday, the guy on the phone introduced himself as Henry, speaking with an unfamiliar accent. He sounded young. He told me someone in San Antonio had used my Social Security number to secure housing and send money to Mexico. It felt like a strong approach, leveraging national fears about illegal immigration.

I played along for a while, assuming he’d hang up on me once I said who I was, and probed to at least figure out some of the process. The call hit a breaking point about five minutes in — he couldn’t get me to offer my Social Security number; I couldn’t change the subject any more — so I admitted my grift, identified myself and asked for the interview. 

Believe it or not, he was game. 

I started with the basics. I wanted a real first name. He already knew mine — I had given it to him. But I'm a reporter. My name is cheap and I hand it out like candy, because journalism is done by meeting people. His name was sacred, though, and he was reluctant to share it.

"Let's just call me 'Bob,'" he said. 

He didn’t speak openly. Whoever owns the telemarketing operation records his calls, he said, and he could get in a lot of trouble. He said he’d like to call me during his off hours, so I gave him my desk number here at The Star. A week later, he called once to see if my number was real, and he called four or five times while I was out covering an Oxford City Council meeting. I left him a message at his anonymous Google Voice phone number, but he’s been out of touch since. 

Fortunately, I stretched that first call as long as I could, assuming he’d never call me back. Even with the cloak-and-dagger act, I learned these things during that first call: 

Bob isn't in the U.S. 

He said he blames the government for a lack of jobs, which led to his work as a scammer. I asked if he meant the U.S. government, but he said no. He asked me to guess where he's from, based on his accent. His English was excellent, and his accent was unfamiliar, so I had no idea. He decided not to provide his nationality.

The scam depends on a forthcoming victim. 

Bob initially thought I was Scott Rogers, using information paired with The Star’s phone number in his database — nobody by that name works here, if you're wondering — and asked me to verify my Social Security number, to prove he was talking to the real Scott Rogers. This is called social engineering, a kind of computer and database hacking. Instead of guessing a password or some other vital information, the hacker tricks a person into giving it away.

"Say I give you my Social Security number, what happens next?" I later asked. 

He said my Social Security number would be frozen until I paid a fee. I asked if he can cause real damage, or if it's a lie to scare people into paying. He didn’t answer. But it doesn't matter; with my Social Security number and my credit card info, if I paid his ransom over the phone, he or his masters are positioned to do a lot of damage. 

He didn’t know where the phone numbers come from. 

I asked Bob if he was high up in his company, or just the guy who answers phones. It's the latter, he said. When he was quiet, I could hear the murmur of a call center through the phone’s speaker. He didn’t know where his company gets its lists of phone numbers to call. He suggested a black market of information, but claimed to know nothing more. 

Bob said he doesn't like his job. 

I asked if he answered an ad or was recruited to his job, but he didn’t want to say. He said he knows what he does is wrong, and that he doesn't want to do it. 

“Sometimes when you don't have a choice, you have to do it to survive,” he said. 

Bob worried that I was with the FBI or CIA; I told him someone from either of those organizations would have a plan to bust him that would be far more clever than what I was doing. 

We had a decent chat. Bob's a crook — he would have wrecked my life if I had given him my info — but I try to believe that people, in general, want to do right. I told him I hope he finds a legitimate job that makes him happy. Bob didn’t think it was likely. 

“I don't see happiness for me,” he said. “I'm in hell.” 

Assistant Metro Editor Ben Nunnally: 256-235-3560. 

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