How To Keep A Phone Scammer Occupied For As Much Time As Possible

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.

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Comments

    Yeah, this won't work with the new system they're using. I get several calls a week now from automated bogus Quantus/Virgin frequent flyer scams... All you can do is just hang up, but they just keep trying..! :(

      I wonder if we could arrange to have them transferred to the communications minister :)

    "Hold on, I'll just get my credit card".

      The record is about 27 minutes before they hung up. Periodically coming back to the phone and saying something to the effect of "I can't find it but don't hang up please, I'll just go check the car/wallet/other room".

    I've never gotten a scam call before. I really want one just so I can troll them.

      Me too , But i may never get one as i don't have the internet at home and only use a mobile.

        They don't know this - it is random calling to hope they get lucky. Have been waiting for my turn, but they have missed me so far but got my mum (what is a computer?) and my missus (we don't have internet) - neither one felt like stringing them along so gave them a bullshit response that left them with nowhere to take the conversation.

      Trust me... Once it starts, there is no end..! :)

      Last edited 01/08/14 1:03 pm

    If you're on a PABX, say you have to transfer them to your direct manager, then forward the call to 1800 132 468 (Centrelink Complaints). Guaranteed to keep them on the phone for hours..

    I just transfer them around departments. 'Oh, computers? sounds like you want engineering'. 'Oh, no, you want accounts for that.' 'sorry, the receptionist made a mistake. you need to talk to marketing'. Eventually they end up with a PA who refuses to let them speak to their manager without an appointment.

    I keep myself entertained by mixing up the accents, whistling 'hold music' during transfers, and getting creative with the background noise. Really fun when you tag-team them with a friend.

    Part of me feels a bit sorry for these dudes as they are likely desperate to earn some money in a country where poverty is rife and may have been misled into these job positions. The other part of me enjoys stringing them along on occasion. I've also said to a few that perhaps they should consider a different line of work, you never know, if enough people say that to them perhaps it will make a change for the better. The real scum are the dudes running the show in my opinion.

    Once time I strung them along until I got the access number to logmein so I could report them. Once I’d done that, I started just responding, “I like cheese,” and “Do you like cheese?” to anything they said.

    The funny thing was she put me on to her manager at this point, who after a couple of cheesy rounds figured out I knew what was going on and just put me back to the caller, who then told me off for not taking this seriously.

    Last time I was just on my way out, so I said, “Normally I would string you along for ages and waste your time because you’re trying to scam me, but I’m just about to go out. Is there any chance you could call back later?” They hung up, and never did call back.

    We need to figure out a way to trick them into connecting to a Game of Thrones torrent tracker, that'll motivate Telstra to track them down. We'll be bombing call centers by the end of the week.

      Osama bin Laden evaded capture for years, then a day after the third episode of Game of Thrones aired he was dead. Coincidence? I don't think so.

      Last edited 01/08/14 2:44 pm

      Your comment prompted me to think, isn't funny how our government is spending millions if our taxes trying to set up some way of stopping ordinary people from downloading free movies, in order to protect the profit margins of large foreign media congolmerations of the world, Yet they don't seem to be spending any money tracking down and finding ways of stopping scams like this which have then potential to cause real financial damage to actual Australian citizens.

      I dare say there is a range of relatively simple technological solutions to stopping these scammers that could be done a lot easier than any of the schemes they've come up with to stop illegal movie downloads.

      I suppose it's all about priorities in the end, and who our government is really interested in protecting.

        And sadly the people that fall for these scams are the ones who can't afford the losses. It'd be nice to see something more done about it though I'm not sure how much could actually be done.

        Personally, I used to waste their time too (when I wasn't busy). "Let me boot up the PC. Sorry it's slow. Bear with me. Hang on it's in a different room just gotta put the phone down" and so on. Got annoying though because some of them had auto dialback and after I'd hang up the phone would ring instantly. Would happen three or four times usually. Been happy since killing my landline and using the mobile only. Haven't had a scam call since.

        Got a mate whose current plan is to hand the phone to his young kids and let them babble to the scammer until the give up.

    My old man got a call once explaining that we had "won" a trip to Queensland... on the proviso that we do some nonsense like pay for a seminar or something.
    Before the caller had the chance to give him the proviso, he yelled excitedly to "the kids" (I was 17) that we'd be going on our first ever holiday. After he'd "calmed down" the caller explained what he would have to do to "win" and, in one of the best displays of acting I've seen in person, he broke down and explained how "devastated" the "kids" would be, how we'd never had a holiday, how "tough" we'd had it in our few short years (I was a middle class white kid. Don't know the meaning of the word...)
    The caller hung up in tears thinking they'd destroyed the happiness of several small, impoverished children.

    I waited for ages to get my first call and when I finally did, I played dumb and googled ahead each step. When we eventually got to the LogMeIn screen, I told that that they were lowlife hacker scum. She tried to explain that she was trying to help me and eventually got so wound up and let loose with "You are sh!t"
    Since then, I just tell them that they are mistaken as I only run Linux, Mac, etc.
    Next time could be the "Please wait while I start my compuer...."

    Come on "You've got mail" "You've got mail" "You've got mail" Yaaaaaaayyyyyyy!!! I have played that guy so many times.

    I once won a trip to anywhere in Australia.........so I just started listing the names of every place in Australia to see if it was one of the places I could go. That call was about thirty minutes long. I think i was rolled about ten minutes in though I think they just wanted to see is I would run out of places to ask about.......I didn't and for the record Antarctica was on the list of places I could go.

    I just ask them if they think they're mother is proud of what they do. Nothing like parental judgement to set the shame into them.

    Man, i used to get these all the time when a had a landline. I reckon i held one off for close to half an hour. In the end I simply explained I didn't have a computer, I think they hung up straight away lol.

    About 3 years ago believe it or not i got to just over 40 minutes with one call, I was a bit bored at the time. The caller said I had viruses and asked me to open up the event log, which is normally full of warning triangles and the like.

    I strung her along and she passed me over to one of their "technicians", he talked me through a lot of stuff on my Windows 7 machine that eventuated in him saying now visit this website and click the "allow remote". Of course I just pretended to undertake all his commands. I said OK I've clicked on the button but nothing appears to be happening. We then went through everything step by step again, again he said click the allow remote button.

    I said (clean version, substitute the worst swear words you know) what the "hell" do you take me for you scamming "idiot", do you think I would allow a "idiot" like you to take over my computer, now "go away" I just strung you along you "fool".

      I don't let them in on the secret of being discovered...I get to the end and finally say; great its working now, fantastic, thanks. and then just leave the phone off the hook.

    And earlier this month, he set a personal best by keeping a caller on the line for 31 minutes.

    Before today, all I had to beat was my own PB of 21 minutes. Now I feel like an amateur.

      You're all amateurs my PB is 44 minutes but it was a telemarketer, I treat them the same as the scammers but there are far more avenues of enquiry to keep a telemarketer occupied so it is easier to string them along.

    One called my work phone, I told them I was dealing with another call and would they hold.

    They stayed of hold for 34min before hanging up

    They called the next day and where annoyed to be left oh hold when they where trying to "help" me, I told them to to hold on while I get my supervisor. Placed them on hold before they hung up after 12 min

    I, being a Mac user, once got the "Widnows computer virus" call. I spent 5 minutes discussing my Windows computer, then when told to go to my start menu I responded with "Oh, I'm sorry to waste your time, I don't have a start menu, I'm on a Mac." Then, get this, I was told that no, I was in fact running windows. Unfortunately I was then overly sarcastic with my tone and then they hung up.

      Gotta love when they start getting angry at you. My Mum got one who started abusing her because she didn't have a PC.

      "You must have a PC. Everyone has a PC".

      "I don't. I don't need one"

      "You're lying ! Don't lie to me!"

      lol

    I just tell them that I'm in a Non-Traditional Amish Household, and I already have Windows open. I'm not about to close them for anyone.

    Now, another one tonight from another "c-m": This was to tell me that the Federal Government are now offering $4000 for installation of solar panels (poor Joe Hockey will be happy about that, I am sure!). She prattled on so fast I couldn't get a word in, just talking over me the whole time. She eventually heard the crude terms I was saying and gave up. She did admit she was calling from New Dehli - bit of a change from Mumbai.

    I pretend to be a 5 yr old and ask them if they are my new pet elephant or Girrafe my Daddy promised me for my birthday. I exclaim my amusement at how big their poo's are. My record was 5 minutes. Obviously not a good strategy for longevity record but gee it was fun listening to them asking for my parents and trying to explain the reason for their call.

    For the techos amongst you, patch in an mp3 player into the phone line, and max out a sound file which causes acoustic shock. I've done so, and is loving it. Always looking forward to these calls, so that I can cause them permanent ear damage! *INSERT EVIL LAUGH HERE*

    For those of you who says that the new phones have acoustic shock protection; my response is that loud high-pitched piercing sounds do not exceed the db limit cut-offs. It does work! Fully tested with friends (after warning them to move their ears away from the phone piece), on both voip and analog landline phones! :)

      "Some person in a second world country doing the only job they could find. Sure this might not fit into our own personal set of ethics, but they DO have to feed their family.

      One day they sadly get you on the random dialer, permanent deafness and a ruptured eardrum follow.

      The family, now with it's bread winner out of work are reduced to begging, the children sold into prostitution and slavery."

      Sure that's a rather large and obvious strawman, but despite that there is still the fact you are going out of your way to inflict a permanent disability on another human. This, in my eyes, makes you even more despicable then them.

      They are still human. Don't be a Morrisson, instead show a little human decency.

        Absolutely disagree with you.
        Anyone who attempts to rob others will be dealt with, in a retaliatory manner.
        A decent human being, would never scam/rob others in the first place.

          Perhaps they are just doing a job they get trained for though??? Most of them might have no computer repair experience and are doing as they are told so they can pay this weeks rent. I'm picturing workplaces with bulling bosses and a high staff turnover for those that aren't good enough. Don't get me wrong, I hate the fact that people get scammed, but I feel for the innocent ones.
          I fear the ones that are good probably know they are scamming people though.

    I have some recordings of gunfire on my tablet, say that I have to answer the door ,play the recording, and say my dying words to them.
    Similar with those Swedish art students going door to door flogging the mass produced works from China and also for proselitisers, I ask if they are a friend of the deceased, and that the viewing will start in about 15 minutes in the lounge room but there has been a problem with some venting of smells that the undertaker's assistant is attending to before everyone else arrives.

    After I ask them if they know about the love of Jesus, they don't usually stay on the line long enough for a decent conversation.
    -Sigh-

      For those times when you don't have time yourself, why not direct then to someone who can be of more help? I only have a cell so this is my method...
      "Sorry, my battery is about to die, can you call me back on my landline/work phone?
      Thank you so much, my other number is (insert local FBI phone #). "

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