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.