Phone scammers pretending to be from Microsoft/Telstra/whoever to scam information and infect your computer are parasites, criminals and public nuisances. If you have the time to spare, keeping them on the line as long as possible is an easy way to improve the world for everybody.
Phone picture from Shutterstock
Scam calls alleging that a virus or problem has been detected on your machine are far from a new phenomenon; they've been an issue in Australia since at least 2009, and probably much earlier. Sometimes they claim to be from Microsoft or Apple, sometimes from Telstra or another ISP.
The most common version of the script these nuisances are paid a pittance to read claims that a virus has been detected on your machine. The over-the-phone instructions you're given to detect this will infect your machine with malware and/or compromise your identity. As an added insult, sometimes they'll tell you there's a service charge and ask for your credit card details as well.
A more aggressive variant is currently doing the rounds, and consists of someone telling you that your Internet is about to be disconnected if you don't pay your Telstra bill. (Telstra gets singled out because it's the biggest provider, which means there's a fair chance a random number called in Australia will in fact reach a Telstra customer.) Again, the aim is to get your credit card details.
I've encountered this call twice in recent weeks, and in both cases the person on the other end was much pushier than with the "we've found a virus" variant. That said, when the call got nasty, she was no match for me when it came to abusive vocabulary. Let's just say I wouldn't recommend anyone actually do that with a pitchfork.
If you receive one of these calls, it's tempting to hang up immediately. That's certainly the advice you should give to any friends or relatives who might be taken in by such a scam. But if you're not doing anything else and one of these scum calls up, then it can be a good idea to keep them on the phone for as long as possible.
Not only can this be amusing, it also means that the scammer in question is not talking to someone else who might actually fall for their BS. And if the scammer is being paid per successful target, you're actually depriving them of an income. Either way, it feels good.
Tactics To Stall Scam Callers
Friend of Lifehacker and frequent contributor Alex Kidman is a master of this particular art. He wrote a detailed account for us back in 2012 of how to string along a scam caller, and he has maintained the rage in the years since. Last year, he annoyed a scammer sufficiently that "Bill Gates" promised to call back. Even more improbably, fake Bill Gates turned out to be a woman. And earlier this month, he set a personal best by keeping a caller on the line for 31 minutes.
Drawing on his experience and our own, these are the tactics you can use to string out a call.
Launch an initial delay
As soon as you detect a scam caller, express interest but explain you just have something on the stove you need to turn down. Wait a few minutes before returning to the phone. (If you're not in the mood for conversation and don't mind tying up your landline, you can simply leave your phone at this stage and see how long it takes for them to hang up.)
Stay polite and stay believable
While it will be frequently tempting to turn nasty, that will make the call end more quickly. Stay calm and stay polite, while stalling at every possible opportunity. Similarly, it's best to keep your claims believable. While there might be amusement value in explaining that you're running Windows on a Commodore 64, that can also serve as a signal for the scammer to hang up.
Ask to have every instruction repeated
These scammers prey on ignorance, so there's not much risk in having them explain everything. Ask for every single instruction to be repeated, and question every detail. Say that's there's no key labelled 'Enter' on your machine. Ask them whether you need to left-click or right-click every single time. Explain that your machine is very slow and will take a long time to boot up.
Never deliver the response they expect
Invariably, if you get far enough into the call, you'll be asked to either visit a web site or run some existing Windows program. (The innocuous output from a standard diagnostics tool will often be cited as "proof" that your machine is infected.) Naturally, you won't do this, but if you have basic computing knowledge, you can string the process along. Explain that Windows Update is now forcing your machine to reboot. If asked to run a command line tool, say that a giant red box has appeared on the screen. If you're asked to type a command, ask for each letter individually, and then point out three minutes later that you misheard a "B" as a "C". The possibilities are endless (but again, try and resist the temptation to be surreal or quote South Park, at least until you're bored).
Incorporate additional delays
You can stretch out the call with additional interruptions: someone enters the room, the baby starts crying, there's a knock at the door, there's been a power cut, you have to go to the bathroom. Be very apologetic each time one of these happens.
No time to waste a scammer's time?
You won't always have the luxury of wasting a scammer's time, unfortunately. If you're waiting on a call, heading out the door or otherwise occupied, go for a simpler punishment. At the very least, offer them a few choice epithets about the revolting scum they are. For an even quicker and more painful routine, keep a whistle near the phone, and blast an ear-piercing shriek down the phone at them.
Have your own favourite techniques for stringing along scammers? Let's hear them in the comments.
This story has been updated from its original publication.