Humanity has had countless communicative advancements. Just as linguistics have evolved, so, too, have its outlets. But one thing remains certain: cunning individuals will always corrupt their fluency within a medium as ample opportunity for practical jokes.
Perhaps the most famous of these tricksters is Dr. Benjamin Franklin, American Founding Father and inventor. As a teenager, Franklin was a printing apprentice for his older brother James, publisher of The New-England Courant. James refused to allow Benjamin any written contribution to his paper, so Benjamin took on the persona of Mrs. Silence Dogood, a middle-aged widow with aspirations to find love once more, coupled with passionate opinions of fashionable apparel, religious zealots, and academic quackery. She had such a large fanbase that male admirers wrote in to the paper requesting her hand in marriage.
Nearly two hundred years later, the telephone was invented. Didn’t take long at all for people to organize humorous interactions with it, as a February 2, 1884 entry of The Electric World details a “malicious wag” pranking undertakers. Around a hundred years after that, The Simpsons introduced a character called Bart, whose favorite activity is calling Moe’s Tavern requesting to speak with an imaginary individual with a double entendre for a name, like Amanda Hugenkiss, Seymour Butts, etc. Moe then shouts across the bar looking for the individual, but instead looks foolish requesting to see more butts or other asinine things.
While Bart’s telephonic escapades are voluntary (much like those of his voice actress, Nancy Cartwright, who used his likeness to promote Scientology, to the chagrin of her producer and network) too many schemes are capitalizing on bogus information via phone. They, too, use pseudonyms to distance themselves from their farce, but they are not ridiculous ones like Jacques Strap. They are, instead, incredibly simple, traditionally American-sounding names like Daniel Jones, sometimes coupled with impressive titles such as Detective, Officer, or Technician Daniel Jones.
A common, and perhaps most terrifying scam is the Internal Revenue Services ploy. An unsuspecting American receives a text message or voicemail, usually through a robotic voice. They are given a number to call when the voice reveals there is a pending lawsuit filed under the American’s name. They call and urged to purchase a “federal card” from a retailer without disconnecting (said “card” is usually just a gift card—often for Google Play, iTunes, or Visa). The card is often an absurd sum well into the thousand-dollar range, and the bait must read the digits on the back of the card aloud to the scammer. The information is then passed onto runners within the US who liquidate and launder the funds. This scheme works because tax filing in the US is notoriously confusing, requiring all expenses made to be exact, discouraging estimates or rounding. Even with software like TurboTax or the assistance of accountants, Americans still fear something could go awry, as Lisa Bennett explains to Narratively:
Throughout my hour-long ordeal I was very aware that it could be a scam, and that there were many things that didn’t make sense. Yet I was also deeply afraid that it could be true — that I could have made a mistake on my tax forms; that IRS forms could have been sent but never arrived; and that events could get out of control and go terribly wrong. And this combination of plausibility, fear and confusion soon drove most rational thoughts from my head.
The United States government, thankfully, does not take kindly to fraudsters impersonating federal agencies. Twenty-four US-based defendants were sentenced by this July, but still, rouses like this are far from over despite continued regulation. In fact, at the time of composition, my landline received a call that my Microsoft security key has expired and must be renewed by calling a number. While the rouse has a slightly different background, it still insists users pay for a bogus service, with the added possibility of having malware installed or losing access to their own machines.
Perhaps the reason why these scams continue is because these runners are so skilled at laundering funds (please read fellow RGNN contributor Siddharth Almeida’s breakdown of how such process is initiated). Further, many who run these frauds are alienating themselves from similar communities. According to several pleas of the previously mentioned defendants, their call centers in Ahmedabad, India not only impersonated the IRS, but also the US Citizenship and Immigration Services. Ironically, many of these fraudsters are immigrants themselves who have maintained permanent resident status or are even American citizens.
Of course, not every telephone scam comes from India or its community. A rising scam targets the Chinese, with a female robot-voice claiming to be from the Consulate, threatening deportation if the victim does not pay a fine.
NBC spoke with a Cambridge, Massachusetts woman of Chinese origin who fell for the scam, but contacted her city’s police department and retrieved her funds in time before the damage was done. The manipulation falls upon the fact that though the Greater Boston area does have a large Chinese population, few outside such heritage speak proficient Mandarin. So, the message falls upon deaf ears to many, decreasing chances of reports to governing bodies like the Federal Trade Commission or the Federal Communications Commission. Though Massachusetts is not alone in these calls—communities in large states like New York and California have also received them.
As noted through this massive sentencing by the US Justice Department, American authorities are keeping a sharp eye on these crimes, but Indian authorities, like Inspector Madan Ballal of the Thane Crime Branch have conducted sting operations to deter frauds. The US Embassy in China even has a page on their website providing an overview of common scams. Additionally, politicians like US Congresswoman Grace Meng have passed legislation against spoofing American telephone numbers from abroad. Additionally, the Indian Department of Telecommunications points to Section 25 of the Indian Telegraph Act to forbid caller ID spoofing. While the act itself was enacted in 1885 to combat “injury to or interference with a telegraph line or post,” the rule still fits for today’s technology.
Additionally, humor has become a rich source for vigilantism against these crimes. People hone the skills they learned from Bart Simpson and flipping the farce the way it was meant to be: funny, not frightening. Sites like 419Eater provide resources to connect with scammers and waste their time. Video personalities like Kitboga or Trilogy Media use their improv skills to flirt with scammers, play games with them, sing together, draw together, and even have scammers open up about their frustrations in working for a criminal enterprise and the baiter takes on some impromptu career counseling.
While mostly the digital natives are the ones broadcasting their scambaiting endeavors, even downloading virtual machines to allow remote access while keeping their real computer safe or using burner phone numbers to deter suspicions, digital immigrants have certainly caught on, especially those that were more so digital birthers, programming software or accessing machines while the technology was still in its infancy, restricted to governments or corporations. My mother is one of these birthers, and when a faux-Microsoft agent called in concern that one of her PC units was hacking into Bank of America, inquiring how many computers were in her possession, her response was that she owned five-hundred computers and the infiltration toward the bank was no accident, but a deliberately orchestrated attack on her behalf.
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, though, as my maternal grandfather, who’s worked in telecommunications much like his daughter, has quipped similarly to these schemers. One bogus technician simply asked how he was, and my grandfather melodramatically responded that he was very sick and may have to go to the hospital.
Will scambaiting stop rouses like this from being such a massive industry? Not necessarily, but it can prevent more gullible people from having their savings swindled, or from banks having fraudulent checks and transfers constantly bounced back and forth. Assuredly, there’s no simple solution to such a rampant problem, but staying knowledgeable and fighting back directly towards the schemers is a way of patrolling this activity and keeping communities safe until such crimes can be truly eradicated.