How To String Along Annoying Scam Callers

I got one of the sadly frequent scam calls the other day from "Windows Consumer care", telling me about a "serious problem" with my computer. Rather than angrily hang up, I kept the call going as long as possible. Here's why.

Picture by dickuhne

Scam security calls are no new thing, but they're a solid annoyance. I'm signed up for the Do Not Call register, so these outfits are breaking more than one Australian law, but I'm sure that's of little concern to an off-shore scammer in any case.

Lifehacker has covered the Microsoft scam caller phenomenon at some length; it's been noted that it's a rapidly rising star in the scam world, and over and over again it's been advised that the best thing to do with scam callers is to hang up on them.

So why did I ignore that sage advice and take the call? I was sitting at my iMac working on some rather dull review test results that needed a little shifting around when my home phone rang. My wife answered it, but that day she had a rather bad cold that left her with little voice, so she quickly handed it over to me.

"Hello, I'm calling from Windows Consumer Care. We've detected a serious problem with your PC."

Inwardly, I sighed. Not another one of these, I thought. And then I realised that I had about half an hour's work ahead of me to do, and a speakerphone. Scams like these work because they hit unwitting targets who go along with the script, and ideally because, like any call centre, they hit as many targets as possible. With that in mind, I figured I'd waste as much time as possible going through the laughable script. The longer they spent on me — where I was at no risk whatsoever — the less time they'd have to target the genuinely vulnerable.

So I played along. Why yes, I did have a Windows computer (for those playing along at home, it's true, I do — for testing. Most of my writing is done on a Mac), and it was acting a little slowly. As was I. Every single command given to me I got repeated at least three times; once because I "couldn't hear her", once because I'd accidentally typed the wrong thing, and then once more because they Run window "kept closing" for some reason.

This, the scammer assured me, was indicative of my problem, but for whatever reason, she had to stick to her script. I also hung up three times over the course of the call — once so I could have a proper laughing fit — and was amazed when they called back.

Eventually, after I'd got her to explain to me that the Windows key on my keyboard was the one on the keyboard and not the one on the screen, we progressed. For anyone that's interested, the approach du jour appears to be one of bringing up the Windows event viewer and then informing the PC's owner that even the smallest problem — like, say, having lots of perfectly fine events in the event viewer — is absolutely catastrophic.

It's not too hard when you're bored (and have the time to spend) to act dumb; the hard part is not cracking up while maintaining the facade. Doubly so if there's someone else in the room; at one point, while I was tweeting my progress along the way, I almost got myself in trouble with the scammer. She accused me of typing while I was meant to be taking her commands seriously, but I waved away those concerns:

"Oh, no, that's my wife, on her electric typewriter. She's a mystery novelist. Say, you don't think her typewriter could get this problem, could it?"

I do wish I'd had a camera at that point; the tears of silent laughter streaming down my wife's face as she bit her knuckles to avoid chuckling made the entire ludicrous exercise worthwhile. For whatever it's worth, apparently you can't get malware on an electric typewriter. Who knew that?

I then moved on with my concern, asking specifically if the mystery "problem" with my computer could cause it to catch fire, as I was "sure" that I'd heard "some kind of fan" kicking in from time to time.

"Oh yes, this problem is very serious." "Oh, really. Fire, you say? Should I unplug it?" "Yes."

So I did. Well, OK, I didn't, because this was just a virtual PC, but that's what I strung the scammer along with. Which created fresh problems for my "stupid" self, because suddenly the screen had gone blank, what with the power having been turned off. I eventually powered the machine up again, noting that the floppy drives were whirring a lot as they did so. Again, the same paranoia-inducing script was used; the "Consumer Care" centre was aware of my problems. How reassuring!

At this point I was at the twenty minute mark, and I'd very nearly finished the actual work I was doing, so I decided to switch tracks, and have my mythical PC reboot into OS X. Suddenly, all I could see was an Apple symbol with the word "Finder" next to it. Could this perhaps be my problem, I asked?

Astonishingly, that brought about a change in the script; rather than trying to get me to launch event viewer (a little tough on a Mac, to be fair), the caller instead tried to get me to go to a given web site. I'm not going to repeat the URL here, because I have utterly zero doubt that it was a malware ridden piece of hysteria-inducing rubbish; instead I kept with the Apple theme and went to Apple.com.

This created a fresh problem. Instead of seeing whatever warning that site was undoubtedly set up to deliver (along with a Trojan payload), all I could see was the words "Introducing MacBook Pro with Retina Display" and a tiny photo of a bald man beneath it. Scammers apparently can't recognise Jonathan Ive, you see.

It was at this point that the scam call took an unexpected turn, as the scam caller angrily accused me of wasting her time. It took her long enough, and eventually the call wrapped up. Total talk time was 27 and a half minutes, and I got all my other work done in the meantime, while enjoying the experience greatly.

So why do it, aside from for the chuckles? Well, if you do genuinely have the time — and I'd certainly suggest multi-tasking your scam-baiting — you're actively helping out those that the scam is looking to target. The more time they waste on you, the less time they're hitting the genuinely gullible. At the same time, it's still a good idea to inform all your friends and relatives about these types of scams to ensure they don't fall foul of them; with a bit of luck the financial model that underpins them might just fall over.

This post is part of our Evil Week series at Lifehacker, where we look at the dark side of getting things done. Sometimes evil is justified, and other times, knowing evil means knowing how to beat it. Want more? Check out our evil week tag page.


This story has been updated since its original publication.


Comments

    This recreational pursuit is like the geek version of sport fishing. You toy with your prey as a challenge. ;-)

      Exactly. It isn't about fish for dinner, it's the experience of fishing. I once kept "Microsoft" on the line for half an hour. A good day.

      I'm kind of partial to forwarding their call to Domino's, or any friend silly enough to have his direct work line in his email signature.

      I too have strung them along for a while but I must say that I'm not sure that the call centre people know themselves that it's a scam. They are likely uneducated themselves and they are simply acting out a script they have been given. Maybe I'm being naive myself but their indignant behavior at our wasting their time or abusing them perhaps backs this up.

      Yep, I work from home and sometimes do this when I'm bored just for kicks. My best one yet was a couple of weeks ago: strung the poor bastard along for 15 minutes or so, and at one point I couldn't hold back my laughter. He asked me in annoyance why I was laughing and not concentrating on his instructions, so I relied that I was just checking Facebook and could he give me a second while I replied to a hilarious post someone had made. He obligingly waited 5 minutes in silence while I gave him a rundown on all the updates on my newsfeed. Eventually I told him I had to go, and he abused me for wasting his time. I replied, hang on, you called me to scam me, didn't you? It's more like you're wasting MY time. He called me a stupid bitch and hung up.

    My record for these guys is around an hour and a half. It was about that time that i got sick of talking to the people (I had been transferred to the "manager" by then) and flat out accused them of being a scammer, to which the "manager" took quite a bit of offense

    This comment has been deemed inappropriate and has been deleted.

      You didn't use the word "sheeple" did you?

        lol I wish that got comments removed... looking at you, MM

    haha my housemate and i did exactly this the last time they called our place, which is also on the useless DNC list too, i pretended to be doing as told and like you threw in the odd moron comment, like believing the event viewer stuff was super bad, eventually it got to the stage where i could no longer safely continue on, the website or more specifically the program they wanted me to download, so i started acting real dumb saying i couldn't find things or things were crashing etc, she got real mad and yelled at me and then got her manager!, he told me to stop wasting time and to continue on, obviously i couldn't so i asked what the program was and what else he was going to do for me and here where we finally lost it and cracked up uncontrollably, amongst the list of things he was going to get us to run was a "defraggLER" i got him to repeat the "defrawhat" he again said defraggler and laughs were on going...he hung up lol

    also to all out there, never hang up on them, simply sit the phone down and let them sit there wondering, even better throw in a "can you wait a minute" (dont wait for an answer), like alex said these guys are trying to hit a quota, and some will sit there waiting for your return for over 10minutes in hopes of nabbing you, 10 minutes sitting there waiting for you is 10 they arent scamming some poor old lady

      You mean this?

      http://www.piriform.com/defraggler

        Fury-fail!

        haha thats amazing such a product exists but no he was in all seriousness talking about defregging, he told me "the defraggler that is part of there software will defraggle my hdd" not talking about that software but yea

    With telemarketers I tend to just hang up on them as their stuck in an awful job and don't need any further abuse from me. But with the people doing these scams they are actively trying to harm me, so like you, I'm happy to waste as much of their time as I can.

    I'll usually play along until I get some sort of login code or similar that I can use to report them to the service (assuming the service cares at all), and then just start saying, "I like cheese" whenever they ask me something.

    Last time I did them I ended up with the manager on the line for a bit, then back to the original scammer who indignantly admonished me for not taking this seriously then hung up on me. I do appreciate their resolve in playing the role through to the bitter end. Certainly adds to the fun.

    I managed 38 minutes doing a similar thing, asking whether it'd cause problems to my floppy disk I was trying to save my powerpoint to, and telling them the computer just crashed and I was waiting for it to restart. In the end the guy said I was wasting his time, to which I replied 'you called me d**head'

    I considered setting up an old PC or a VM and installing the software that they wanted me to but I haven't had a call from them in over 3 months :(, they'd have gotten a bit of a shock when I set the background to something notifying them that we indeed knew they were scammers and blah blah we know where you live...

    The other thing to do is ask them where they are based, I tried it and it went like this:

    Me: "Where are you based?"
    Them: "Australia"
    Me: "Bullshit, where are you really?"
    Them: "Melbourne, we are in Melbourne, Australia"
    Me: "No you are not, you sound like you are in India"
    Them: "I am part of the technical support division at Microsoft in Melbourne"
    Me: "No mate, you aren't...." I can't remember what he said after that.

      If you ask them the weather in said city they generally come unstuck

        When they told me they were in Melbourne, I asked them who won the AFL Grand Final last year. When they couldn't answer the question I knew there was no way they could be in Melbourne

        Yep, and check the weather via Google while you're doing it, just in case they do have an answer.

          Which they couldn't do themselves? Derp.

    I've only managed about 10 minutes personally.. was fun.. but what I was really fishing for was a return phone number so I could get the number blocked by the AFP. Of course it would only be a Skype phone number that they would just replace with another stolen credit card number.. anything to make their life difficult.

      I've actually got one of their numbers, not a fake Australian FNN, but a true Indian number. It displayed on my Call Number Display phone. Usually, "Overseas" is displayed. A bit of research shows that it is in the format of an Indian mobile number. I don't know what to do with it. Best thing is, that caller used some pretty offensive insults during the call. I've written them down along with date and time. Anyone want the number?

        Yes Please troll all the scammers !

        Call them and tell them your from customer care :D

          Say you're customer service and he's suffering from a vinda-loop.

        Oh yes please! I want to call them up and ask them for "help"!

        Here it is: 9264729558
        As it has been many years, I'm not sure it's still active.
        Last heard from him 31 July 2012. Interesting call where he asked me if I thought this was a scam call? Well of course I agreed. This triggered a spray of language like he was trying to get a reaction out of me. I laughed in disbelief until he hung up.

    Tip for phone scammers at work asking to speak with the boss, say "sure" you'll put them through. Place them on hold. They hang up after a few minutes which in which they could have called 5-10 other people and been hung up on straight away.

      Good start, but it's much better if you have at least two staff.
      1. Tell them that they will need to speak to department or staff member x, tell them that you are transferring their call now.
      2. Transfer the call to the other staff member (who is in on the joke). Make sure they leave the call on hold for 5-10 min before picking up.
      3. At this point rinse and repeat... "Sorry, you need John in Accounts for that, I'll transfer you now"
      If you can do a few different voices and keep yourself from laughing this can be dragged out for some time. Between two of us we bounced one guy around for nearly 40 min before he got sick of it and hung up.
      Once again, if you can waste their time, you are saving a few poor Joe's who don't know better.

    These folks are fun. I've strung one along for about 30 minutes once, while I was playing GTA on the Playstation. "Yes, I can click on what you want. OMG - all these errors! Yes, I'll go to your website. Yes, I'm there now, but it has all pictures of animals on it. Yes, I'm sure I typed it in correctly"..... and so on...

    Classic!

    I had one of those calls last year (unplugged the home phone permanently since then). Played along for a bit, then started asking them some questions about my system and came to:
    "Which version of windows is on my computer?
    - I can see here that you are running XP sir
    - Nope
    - Vista?
    - Nope
    - 7?
    - Nope
    - Mac?
    - Yup no windows here buddy..
    - Sorry for wasting your time.
    - Nice chat mate."

      - Mac? No.
      - Linux? No.
      -Are you playing with me, sir? No, I use CP/M.

        Next call I get, my computer is going to have OS/2. While that's a serious problem, I don't think they'll be able to help me.

          to be correct the uptodate version is call e-comm.

          That should stump them!

    I had some fun with one of these people too recently! I had just parked my car at the shopping centre and was nowhere near my home, let alone my computer!! I got a good 10 minutes out of them before the exasperated woman at the end shouted "Oh you just don't understand" and hung up on me! I was actually giggling to myself as I went into the shops - it was so much fun!

    It's allright. Nicola Roxon's data retention laws will prevent every known scam ..... won't it? Hmmm.

    What would be great is if we could get some recordings. As Barb said above - make it a sport and LH could award prizes for the longest / funniest. On that note - LH please do us a guide to recording phone calls.

    Pretty much every single one of my friends has had a call from the 'Windows Consumer Care' team, and they just get angry and hang up on them...

    I actually WANT to talk to these people and have some fun with them... but yet I have never had a call from them... not fair!

    Does anyone have their number? Maybe I can call them?

      I'm not the only one!

      Actually, they called me once and told me my PC was infected, so I tried my best to act concerned, but she hung up about 15 seconds into the call. Either my acting wasn't the best, or something else was going on. But I was disappointed.

    Had a very similar experience a few years back with a known (ie Listed) Ethiopian group claiming to be from England. Strung them along to the point were they hung up, only to call back again 30 minutes later with a TV set blurting out an episode of "Neighbors" in the background.

    one told me that somethign was wrong with my firewall, then asked me if i knew what a firewall was.

    i said yes, and this person obivously hadn't come up to many people who knew what one was and what it does.

    so then he goes and says "it's not a problem with your firewall" so i reply "then what is the problem?" then he just goes back "well your firewall...." too which i just said "look, i know computers, i know what you are trying to do, please piss off" and hung up

    I have done this before also, got to the point where it would have been dangerous to continue and then said Hold on.... how do you know that my computer has issues if I dont have an internet connection? They told me I was an idiot and hung up

    I have an old family friend and she got scammed by those d**heads. They did install some program on her computer and asked for her credit card. Luckily she is old and doesn't have any credit card and that bast***d told her to go to Australia post and get a prepaid credit card. Another lucky moment was the it was raining and she said she will go next day and get it.

    I got to know about this the same day and the lady was saved.

      I had a similar story with my partner's grandmother. Luckily she realized something was up before she gave them too many details but they were calling her back 5-6 times a day trying to finish the job.
      I'm also on the DNC, i still get the call every month or so but when they first started i was getting it a couple of times a day. At one point I would guess it was well over a hundred calls in a month.

    We somewhat regularly get calls from them, and they are pretty annoying. One time I answered the phone and it was one of these morons on the line, I decided to try to put a stop to it. After the guy said he was from the computer care centre or whatever it was, he went on to say that they had detected problems with my computer and blah blah. I humoured him for a little while, saying stuff like "Reeeeally?" and "You don't say!" as he was talking, trying to make it sound obvious that I knew what he was trying to do, but he didn't seem to catch on.

    Eventually I interrupted him and said "Look, do you realise I'm a computer technician?"
    There was then an awkward pause from his end, then he stammered out "You're...you're a computer technician? I'm...I'm from the computer care...uhhh..."
    "Don''t call again".
    *beep beep beep beep*

    I thought surely they must have blacklisted my number or something after that, but nope, a few weeks later, we get another call -_- My wife is also fairly computer savvy so she'd never fall for it either, and often makes up stories like "Sorry, I run Linux", or "Sorry, I don't have a computer", but they continue to call. They are persistent, I'll give them that, but it's fricken annoying.

      My wife just got a call today. She handed the phone to our 2 year old. The caller gave up and hung up after about 2 minutes :P

    Best article. I will be doing this next time I get the chance.

    The only time I got one of these calls, I asked the caller how they knew there was a problem. I pushed the point - "What exactly is the problem? How do you know there is a problem? Have you been spying on me? Do you know that spying on a person's computer is illegal, etc". At this point, the caller hung up on me. Never had one since. Hopefully they blacklisted my number.

    Lol.. I did this as well.. I think I got to about 40 minutes before I started asking about his family and all this other stuff.. where they were and stuff.. after a while i got the guy to admit they're not actually from microsoft at all! my favourite part was when he asked me to go to www.logmein.com to download a software to "fix the errors" lol.. YEAAAHH RIGHT!

    This makes me sad....because I never get scam calls so I dont get the chance to do this.

    I personally enjoy this kind of "sport" my favourite thing to add is to pretend its a business number and to have to find something (credit card, out of date "oh its expired let me find a new one") and to use rickroll as my "hold music" I actually managed to keep someone listening to repeats of never gonna give you up for over 40 mins before the call ended.

    Someone should start an online forum with recordings of scam bait calls.

    Apart from the amusement factor, it would be good to start a voice database of known scammers as I'm sure the day will come when an app could identify a caller's voice against such a list.

    It wasn't that long ago that computers identifying faces from photos seemed like science fiction and the scammers might then be as reluctant to put their voice to a scam call as they'd be to put their photo up on a scam website.

      http://www.419eater.com/

      These guys are scam baiter - mainly for the email ones..

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now