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Getting even with robocalls

Robocalls in the US increased to 5.1 billion in November from 2.8 billion in December 2017

James R Hagerty | WSJ 

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When he gets a robocall, Robert B Eckhardt doesn’t necessarily hang up. If he isn’t too busy, Eckhardt, a professor of developmental genetics at Pennsylvania State University, stays on the line and asks random questions, such as, “Do your parents know what you’re doing?”

If he can string the caller along for 10 minutes, Eckhardt considers it a minor victory in the war against telephone spam.

Most people get annoyed by calls from telemarketers or scam artists. Some try to get even. One tactic is to play dumb. Another is to ask callers to spell their names and drag out the process, trapping them in a futile conversation for as long as possible. (“Is that L as in Lima, Peru? Or L as in Lima, Ohio?”)

James Haefele, a management consultant in Oxford, Conn, subjects suspected scam callers to a blast from his air horn or puts his wisecracking teenagers on the line. When it comes to unwanted calls, he sees two choices: “I’m either going to be mad about this or have some fun with it.”

Despite Do Not Call lists, the shrieking of obscenities and other defenses, rogue calls have only been growing. YouMail Inc., a provider of voice mail and call-blocking services, estimates that in the US increased to 5.1 billion in November from 2.8 billion in December 2017. That’s nearly 16 calls last month for every single person in the country.

They have become even more annoying with the rise of software that can make a fake number show up on caller ID, in an attempt to fool the target to pick up.

Just as technology has made it easier for telemarketers and scammers to make calls, so has it given everyone else resources and ideas to fight back. People share tips on the fine art of baiting callers on social media and can turn to apps for help. The topic has even become its own genre of entertainment on

“My goal is to fight fire with fire,” said Steven Murray, who runs a jewelry and gadget repair shop in Goldsboro, NC. He uses an app called RoboKiller from TelTech Systems.

The app, which costs $3.99 a month, forwards suspect calls to an “answer bot” that serves up a recording. The recordings are designed to seem like live people, with pauses between statements to allow the caller time to talk. Users can choose prerecorded messages or create their own — as Murray did.

Rogue callers hear a recording of him speaking in the voice of a deranged woman who feigns interest in the call but keeps interrupting to talk about spaghetti.

Bryan May of Taunton, Mass, a service technician for a household-alarm company, has found inspiration in online videos. Told by one phone scammer that he was being pursued by the Internal Revenue Service for back taxes, May asked if he could use gift cards from Target and Walmart to settle up. His caller agreed and asked May to read out the serial numbers.

May began making up numbers. When the caller said the numbers were invalid, May apologised and explained he had just come home from a bar, where he “had a few.” He then offered more make-believe numbers, stretching the conversation to more than 15 minutes, until the caller lost patience.

David Mizrahi, who owns a pita restaurant in Lakewood, N J, said he has kept telemarketers on the line for as long as an hour. His favorite stalling lines include: “Can you hold on a second?” “So, what were you saying, what are you calling about?” “Can you tell me more about that?”

Matching wits with telemarketers is a time-honored pastime. In one episode of the 1990s television sitcom “Seinfeld,” the Jerry character asks a spam caller for his home number so he can call back later. The caller demurs and admits that he doesn’t like being called at home. “Well, now you know how I feel,” Jerry says.

These days, friends Ashton Bingham and Art Kulik in Los Angeles have a channel called Trilogy Media, with some 72,000 subscribers, featuring their attempts to enrage callers. In one video, Bingham, a 28-year-old aspiring filmmaker, pretended to be remorseful in a call with someone telling him the IRS had filed a lawsuit against him. “I told my CPA…I honestly don’t really agree with the whole tax thing,” Bingham said on the call. “I told him that they may take our lives but they’ll never take our freedom.” That line—paraphrased from the movie “Braveheart”—was one of 29 film quotes Bingham slipped into the call. He tried coaching another telemarketer to sing “Jingle Bells.” The caller finally erupted: “What kind of joke are you joking with me?”

Troy Hunt, a computer-security consultant in Gold Coast, Australia, engages with suspected phone scammers partly to learn more about how they trick people. Sometimes he can’t resist pranking them. In one call he recorded and posted online, scam technicians promised to fix his supposedly virus-infected computer if he gave them online access to it. While pretending to cooperate with their efforts to patch into his computer, he periodically switched on loud recordings of cockatoos, dingoes or kookaburras. “We’re just in the backyard at the moment,” he explained. “Go on.” “Can you stop the background noise?” his caller asked. “Well, they’re birds,” Hunt said. “I can ask them, but they don’t always do it.” Hunt put on a cheery Crocodile Dundee act and pretended to shoo away a pack of dingoes. The call stretched to 39 minutes. He finally offered: “If you can send a bloke over with, I don’t know, some screwdrivers or something, can we get someone over to fix it?”.A sigh was audible at the other end of the line, the sound of someone realising he has been had. “All right, sir,” the caller said quietly. “I’ll send a guy with a screwdriver, OK. He will fix it.” Then he hung up.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

First Published: Fri, December 28 2018. 21:17 IST