Fun with Phones

Good morning! Author Lisa Black is joining us today. Lisa is a latent print examiner and CSI for a police department in Florida.  Every Kind of Wicked, the sixth installment in her series featuring forensic scientist Maggie Gardiner and homicide detective Jack Renner, involves the duo tracking down a nest of scammers and will be available beginning August 25. Today Lisa is going to discuss — what else? — scamming! Lisa, the floor is yours. Joe Hartlaub

We all get them, every day. You answer with ‘hello’ and there’s that telltale dead air before either a recording starts or someone comes on to tell you that your computer is sending out error messages/your grandson is in jail/you owe the IRS back taxes and the marshals are on their way to your house/we can sell you pain meds or medical equipment over the phone via our doctors on staff or you need an extended car repair warranty.

Most of you are smart and immediately hang up. I dial ‘1’ to speak to a customer service representative.

If I’m in a hurry, I wait until they say ‘hi this is Shteve from Credit Card Services/Microsoft/DirecTV, how are you today?” and then I say in firm, bright tones, “You are a thief and a liar and should be ashamed of yourself.” For the record, those are the harshest words I have ever uttered to someone I wasn’t married to. But I figure if it can be the one straw that breaks the shell of one call center worker who still has some shred of conscience, then I’ve done the world, and maybe that person, a service.

If I’m feeling more empathetic that day, I might say, “I know it’s hard to get a good job where you are, but that doesn’t make it okay to steal money from vulnerable people.”

Where they are could be anywhere in the world (and they will never tell you) due to the ability to spoof numbers and local area codes. In 2006 American and Canadian expats were arrested while running a call center in Costa Rica. In 2018 Floridian Adrian Abramovich was fined $120 million for robocalling, funneling victims to a call center in Mexico for travel discounts from Hilton and Marriott—except those companies knew nothing of it. India seems to lead the world in phone scams specifically (whereas mid-Africa works in social media friending scams and Russia/Ukraine/China simply hacks what they want) and probably for a simple reason: they speak English. The language is a required school subject in Pakistan and Bangladesh and the second most common language in India. In actually the only pleasant conversation I’ve ever had with a scam caller, I asked one how he felt about the disputed region of Kashmir. After a moment’s thought he said they ought to be granted independence. I thanked him for sharing, but still wasn’t going to give him my credit-card number. He said “okay” and hung up.

But if I have plenty of time and I’m sitting in front of a computer, then I Google ‘fake credit card numbers.I feed those to the ‘customer service representative’ until they either give up and disconnect, or turn nasty. Be warned, bare-knuckled obscenity is not a taboo in call center culture. Male and female alike will use language that would make shock jocks blush. That was made clear to me the time I kept some IRS scammers on the line for 45 minutes while I worked at my desk, pretending to drive to the bank that minute to withdraw $7,000 and then proceed to a Walgreens to convert it to iTunes cards. The sudden affinity the U.S. government has shown for iTunes and ApplePay cards is never explained…but at any rate, I had to insist that Walgreens didn’t have $7000 iTunes cards. Communications broke down, and I got an earful.

Sometimes—very rarely—they might call back to deliver a few more choice insults. Usually they won’t. Time is money and they aren’t going to waste a second of it on someone who’s not going to pay off.

What can be done? First of all, and I speak from personal experience, you can get free NoMoRoBo on your landline and inexpensive apps for your cells, which will weed out most of the automated calls. I have Robokiller on my cell. It responds with prerecorded schticks meant to provide hilarious recordings of spam callers getting punked…but in my experience, the spam callers never fall for it. I don’t know if they can electronically detect the app, or if they’ve just heard the responses enough to recognize them from the first word.

Prosecuting the call centers is a more complicated matter. Since the numbers are spoofed, reporting them to the Do Not Call List does not help. Authorities have had better success tracking some of the $10 billion Americans lost to scam phone callers just last year. They don’t publicize their methods but in recent years, arrests have skyrocketed. Indian cyber crime detectives, working with the U.S. and other countries, arrested over two hundred people in one area of their country for running call centers which raked in over $50K a day, mostly from Americans and Canadians. In another case, 24 people in the U.S. are currently sitting in jail for running an IRS scam in which they would launder the money an Indian call center wrung out, one prepaid gift card or wire transfer at a time. So there is hope.

But in the meantime, of course, never give your credit card number (or any other number) to someone who called you. Don’t friend the Ukrainian supermodel or silver fox military contractor looking for love. And never click on the link.

But if you have the time to waste their time, by all means, waste away.

If you’d like to read some true cases:



This entry was posted in Writing by Joe Hartlaub. Bookmark the permalink.

About Joe Hartlaub

Joe Hartlaub is an attorney, author, actor and book and music reviewer. Joe is a Fox News contributor on book publishing industry and publishing law and has participated on several panels dealing with book, film, and music business law. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.

30 thoughts on “Fun with Phones

  1. Our landline delivers a message that says we don’t accept solicitation and if the caller thinks they’re legit, all they have to do is press 1 or stay on the line and the call then rings through. Robots can’t dial 1.
    It’s a free service from our provider, and we went down from about 20 calls a day to about 3 a week. The only things we might get are any pre-recorded messages that run over 30 seconds.
    Our cell phone recognizes potential spam, and there’s an app that sends any unrecognized numbers straight to voicemail. But there are only 3 or 4 real people who have my cell number, so I don’t get many calls.
    I did have some fun stringing along one of the Microsoft scammers until he started swearing at me. Click.

  2. Thanks for the apps, Lisa. One of these days when I’m not on deadline, I’m going to have some fun with whatever scammers call. My daughter does it all the time and tells some of the most hilarious stories.

  3. I’ve seen plenty as a tax professional but the day that took the cake was 4 years ago when a middle-aged woman walked into our office to ask a question. Turns out she had the “IRS” on the line and had already forked over $1500 via gift cards in the last 45 minutes. She stopped to ask if the call was legit as she still needed to gather another $3500 before noon. After I convinced her it was a scam I found out from her that she legitimately owed the IRS 5 grand and she thought because she had stopped making payments that they had caught up to her.

  4. I’ve had callers ask for my 4-digit code. I don’t know what they want but don’t give out any numbers over the phone. I’ve had a bank employee ask for numbers over the phone when that bank warns against it. Strange. 🙁 — Suzanne

    • That is strange! You’re right not to give it over the phone. You can always tell them you’ll call back and then call the bank’s number out of the book or your statement.

  5. “May Kali eat your soul” is my favorite retort for Indian scammers. I had one actually gasp at that one, either from horror or the stupidity of the line, I’m not sure.

  6. Welcome to TKZ, Lisa!

    Recently I heard about a more sophisticated twist: the scammer spoofs your bank’s number then tells you there’s a problem with someone trying to access your account. You need to verify your mother’s maiden name, etc. to prove you’re who you say you are so they can take action. Often they have mined other personal info about you from the net so they add those details to reinforce they are *really* your bank. Since caller ID reads: “ABC Bank” and that’s where you bank, it’s easy to get taken in.

    Always hang up and call the number on the back of your card or your bank’s number from their website. Don’t call back the number that called you.

    As Cheech and Chong said: Don’t answer the phone, man!

  7. Welcome to TKZ, Lisa! So nice to have you here.

    I thought you weren’t supposed to speak to scammers because some can steal key words/phrases for voice recognition software. Yes/no? Thanks for the app. I listed both my cell and landline on the Do Not Call list, and I swear I received more robocalls than before. Oy. There’s a special place in hell for scammers.

    • Wow, I did not know about that! Though I don’t believe any of my accounts would have voice recognition so I don’t know what it would be used for. Though I’m sure it would get more common in the future so that’s something to keep in mind.

  8. Welcome, Lisa!

    Phone spammers/scammers were the bane of our existence for the longest time here at Casa Smith, but our new landline phone is smart enough to warn us when a likely the incoming call is likely spam. We used to have to wait until the message began recording, so got to listen to a number of the same calls.

    The most ridiculous one was the generic “outstanding charge against you” and to please call your “local courthouse.” Then there was the long-running Windows virus scam–ridiculous, since the last thing Microsoft was going to do, even if they had the capability, was to call and tell you your computer had a virus. Not only do they not have that ability, they wouldn’t if they did 😉

    Thanks for posting!

    • Exactly, I’ve gotten tons of those! And the DirecTv reps calling just to see if you’re having any trouble with your service. Yes, like a company that huge has time to just call people for no reason.

    • The Microsoft reps tell me there’s a problem with my computer. I say “Which one?”
      Pause .. “the one running windows.”
      Then, depending on my mood, I say none or all of them, and since they are telling me the computer is showing the error, then certainly they must know which one it is.

  9. Very informative post…thanks Joe and Lisa.

    I’ve kinda been wondering about the uptick in “friend” requests I’ve been getting from Ukraine, Russia, Pakistan, Uganda, etc. etc. I have a firm rule: I never accept a request from a foreign country, even if they claim to have a billion “mutual” friends. (I don’t need another so-called “friend” that badly.) “Mutual friends” can be faked, too. And before accepting any friendship, I troll their page to see what kind of stuff they post. If there’s language I don’t like, or nothing but politics of any persuasion, no.

    It’s too bad our good guys have to work so hard against the bad guys, but I guess it’s job security.

    • You’re absolutely right! It’s wonderful to be multi-cultural, but of the non-scam foreign requests, I can’t see the point in friending someone when all their posts are in a language I can’t understand! They might be really interesting but I don’t even have time to read my real friends’ posts, certainly not time to translate all of someone else’s.

    • I’ve simply stopped accepting friend requests for “the duration.” I don’t have the time or patience to vet them.

  10. I work for a legitimate call center in the US where we make outbound sales calls to existing customers. We’ve all dialed those anti spam pre recordings and they are hilarious. It kind of makes our day to play with one of those recordings, especially after hours of being hung up on.

    • Glad if they can brighten your day! Legit calls do get caught in them–I listened to one and it was someone at my college calling to ‘update info’/ask for a donation. I felt so sorry for the poor girl!

      • Yes, because, truth be told, my company is a Fortune 100 company but even we use spoof numbers so it looks like we’re calling from the same state as the customer. It increases odds of picking up. You’d be surprised how many sales result from cold calls.

  11. Because I’m retired and have the time, I sometimes keep a scammer on the line as long as I can and gradually insult him until he begins screaming profanities in his foreign accent. I find it quite hilarious but so far have learned no new curse words.

  12. In the past, I’ve done one of the following:

    – Blasted music into the phone mouthpiece. I never thought of blowing a horn or whistle. That would be quicker to implement.

    – Answered the phone in my best robotic voice to say “The number you have reached is not in service. No further information is available.”

    Presently, our landline attaches “SPAM” to suspicious phone numbers as soon as the phone begins ringing. And if we don’t recognize the name or phone number, we don’t answer the phone. Most of the time, scammers won’t leave a message on voicemail; although, the IRS scammers did leave messages.

Comments are closed.