For a time in the late 1990s, I was getting flooded with phone calls from telemarketers. The calls were unrelenting. At its peak, I was getting multiple calls per hour. Most of those calls were annoying but relatively harmless. Even so, I decided that I had to do something, so I came up with an awesome way of putting a stop to the calls.
Back then, I used something called the Microsoft Cordless Phone System. I’m not talking about Windows Phone, I’m talking about an old school, 900MHz cordless phone that was controlled by a PC.
Many of this phone’s capabilities were almost unheard of at the time. For example, the phone could compile a call log on your PC, and you could create custom greetings depending on who was calling. With a few tweaks to the software, I was able to create a “telemarketers group.” Any time I received a call from a telemarketer, I added the caller ID information to the group. Any time that a call came in from any of the numbers in the group, the system was programmed not to ring (so that I would not be disturbed), and to play a special message to the telemarketer. I’ll leave the message contents to your imagination, but let’s just say that my technique was very effective in putting a stop to the relentless telemarketing calls.
Today, a lot has changed. For one thing, my method of dealing with unwanted callers would never work now. The Microsoft Cordless Phone System is extinct. Besides, it is way too easy to spoof caller ID information. More importantly, the calls themselves have changed. Most of the calls that I seem to get these days are from scammers, many claiming to be from “the tech support department.” While I haven’t yet found a way of putting a stop to these calls, I have found that messing with tech support scammers can be a source of endless amusement.
How the scam works
So before I tell you how you can royally screw with tech support scammers, it’s important that you know how the scam works. There are a number of variations of the scam, but the basic idea is that a scammer calls and tells the person who answers the phone that their computer is infected with a virus.
My experience has been that the scammers like to show the intended victim error messages within the Windows Event Viewer logs. Even though these errors are normal, and most are completely benign, the scammer claims that the errors are evidence of a viral infection. The scammer will then ask for money to fix the problem. Or, the scammer will ask to take control of your computer, cause severe damage, and then demand money to fix the problem that they caused. If you would like to see exactly how the scam plays out, go to YouTube and search on the phrase “telephone tech support scam.”
Become an idiot
OK, so now that you know how the scam works, it’s time to have some fun. One of the ways that I have messed with “tech support” scammers in the past is to pretend to be completely computer illiterate (or maybe even a little bit worse than that). One of the first questions that the scammers usually ask is if you have a PC or a Mac. I like to pretend that I don’t know the difference between the two. The scammer asks lots of questions to determine what I have, and I intentionally make the scammer struggle to decipher my answer, eventually giving them just enough information to let them think that I am using a Mac.
Once the “troubleshooting” portion of the call begins, I pretend not to be able to find anything that they are asking me to click on. Eventually, I ask them if I should press the Windows key. When they start giving me directions for a Windows system, I still act like I don’t know what I am doing, but once again drop subtle hints that I am using a Mac. I had one scammer get so mad at my antics that he gave me a tongue lashing and hung up on me.
Another way to have some fun is to be a schizophrenic. This method works similarly to the method that I just described, but with one twist. Once the scammer is convinced that I am completely clueless, I suddenly turn into a computer expert and make it obvious to the scammer that I have not only been onto the scam from the beginning, but that I know more about computers than he or she does.
In case you are wondering, I did this the first time that I received a tech support scam call, because I was curious as to what the scammer would ask me to do. I stopped playing dumb as soon as the scammer asked me to download a file.
Adopt a friend
During a recent visit, a relative received a call from their doctor’s office (this was a seemingly legitimate call). The person from the doctor’s office was asking a lot of questions in an effort to gather information for an upcoming appointment. Every time that my relative was asked a question about his insurance, he would shout the question to his wife, who was in the next room.
After the fact, I kept thinking that it would be a lot of fun to do the same thing to a tech support scammer. I could play the clueless user who has to shout every single one of the scammer’s questions to someone else. So what if I happen to be the only one who is home at the time. I can still pretend to be talking to someone who is more knowledgeable than myself.
Have telephone problems
I haven’t gotten to try this one out on a scammer yet, but I once used this technique on a particularly obnoxious coworker at a place where I used to work. I answered the phone with a simple hello. When I heard the voice on the line and realized who I was talking to, I said hello a couple more times, pretending not to be able to hear the person. Then I decided to kick things up a notch. I shouted HELLO! into the phone one more time, and then banged the receiver on my desk a few times (as loudly as I could). I shouted HELLO! into the phone one more time before swearing at the “broken” phone and then hanging up (loudly). I’m pretty sure that the unwanted caller’s ears were left ringing after that one.
Be a time traveler
I love this one, but sadly I can’t take credit for it. It was actually my wife who came up with this little gem, although I really wish I had been the one who thought of it.
Remember that in order for the scam to work, the scammers have to gain access to your computer. So, when the scammer told my wife that she needed to be online, she told him that she would need to hang up the phone because she had dial-up Internet and couldn’t go online and talk on the phone at the same time. It was hilarious to watch her in action. I was just waiting for her to bring up the old AOL CDs from the 1990s.
One of the ways that I have screwed with tech support scammers in the past has been to point out some of the really obvious flaws in their story. Think about this one for a second. The scammer claims that tech support has remotely detected a virus on your computer, but can’t fix the problem unless you grant them remote access. The premise seems a bit illogical, but I’ll accept it anyway. After all, there are monitoring tools that push information from a user’s computer to a remote server, without providing full-blown remote access. But if the “tech support department” legitimately detected an infection on your computer, shouldn’t they at least be able to tell whether you are using a PC or a Mac? With some exceptions, malware tends not to be multiplatform.
As an alternative, you can always press the scammer for more information. I tried this one once. A scammer claimed to be with tech support, and I asked which company’s technical support he was from. The scammer just kept repeating that he was from technical support. I pressed further by asking how he had gotten my number, and was told that I received a tech support contract when I bought my computer. At that point, I told the scammer that the story seemed a little fishy because I built my computer rather than buying it from a store.
Be like my mom
My mother recently told me that she had received a call from a scammer who told her that they had detected a viral infection on her computer. She asked how that was even possible since she does not have Internet connectivity (she really doesn’t). The scammer just could not seem to grasp the idea that there are still people in this world who do not have Internet access.
After hearing of this particular incident, I thought that it might be fun to play a future incident in exactly the opposite way. (I have not yet had the chance.) The next time that someone tells me that my computer has a virus, I want to ask them which computer. I think that if someone is going to call me and tell me that my computer is having problems, then it is reasonable to expect them to be able to identify the problematic system among the many computers on my network. Maybe I will ask them for the MAC address IP address, or NetBIOS name of the system that is allegedly having the problem.
Method to my madness
As much fun as it is to mess with tech support scammers, I do it for more than just the sheer entertainment value. Tech support scammers are out to rip off innocent people. Sadly, I know several people who have fallen for tech support scams and have been coned out of hundreds of dollars. My philosophy is that if I can keep a scammer on the phone dealing with whatever twisted little game I decide to play with them, then that is time that the scammer is not on the phone with another potential victim. If I play my role well enough, then I can cause the scammer to have a frustrating day, while also potentially reducing the number of people that the scammer can call that day.
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