Podcasters Take Annoyance With Tech Support Scammers Really, Really Far

Image courtesy of Tara Chavez

If you’re looking for something to brighten your Monday, and you’ve always wanted to learn more about the actual people and businesses behind the robocalls that plague your phone, here’s just the thing. It’s a world-spanning epic that began with a tech support robocaller that happened to dial the number of the wrong bored podcast host.

“We are legion. Expect us.”

Specifically, a company in India called up Alex Goldman, co-host of the podcast Reply All, and told him in a slick British robo-voice that his computer was compromised. He knows that this is a scam, but feels compelled to call anyway. Maybe Goldman felt compelled to call because he knew that it was a scam, in the grand tradition of 419 Eater and the P-P-P-Powerbook.

This is a variation on a very common scam, which gets your attention through an online pop-up, a direct phone call, or a robocall, which warns you that your computer has been infected with a virus. As far as many users know, Microsoft can tell that your computer is infected with a virus from afar, so this scam is an effective one that can be lucrative. The software that these particular scammers were selling cost $400.

How far did it go? During the first call, Goldman asked the supposed “tech” whether he really worked for Apple. It eventually became clear to the scammer that he wasn’t going to make a sale to Goldman, but rather than assuring his customer that Apple had dispatched him to help, the tech, identified only as “Alex Martin,” pivoted to threats:

“We are anonymous. We are legion. Expect us.” Later, he clarified, “We will be demolishing all of your social identities.”

How could someone not be intrigued after that?

Zeus Troan

So, Goldman called back. He went through the scam once again, this time playing along until he reached the point where he would have to give over his credit card number. Then, he did something you should never, ever do — he gave control of his computer to the fake tech support staff.

Let’s be clear here: there was nothing detected. The tech had just typed the words in there. As you might be able to figure out from the word “Troan.”

“Ok, it says that your Apple ID is compromised, and a Zeus Troan is found,” the tech played along with his own typo.

Can I talk to Kamal?

In a heartwarming turn, Goldman actually strikes up a friendship with “Alex Martin,” the first tech he spoke to. Goldman tells Consumerist that over a period of a few months he probably called the scammer’s call center 100 times, asking again and again for “Alex Martin.” As he learned more about the company’s operations, he would also ask to speak to the boss — a guy named Kamal.

In an email interview, Goldman tells Consumerist that, despite the fact that he probably took up a lot of their time, he wasn’t deliberately trying to keep the scammy call center staff on the line.

“I’d love to say that I seriously impeded their operation,” he wrote in response to Consumerist’s hopeful question, “but it feels hard to imagine, because there are 50 or more people in their company. In all likelihood I was a welcome afternoon diversion for them.”

(Having worked in a call center, yes, his calls were probably both a stressor and an interesting diversion.)

We’re not going to tell you everything, but you should know that the episode ends with Goldman learning about the special relationship between Kamal and Alex Martin, and concludes with Goldman and a producer boarding a plane to India.

Go check this story out. If you aren’t into podcasts, there’s a link at the bottom of the episode page to open a transcript, which you can read.

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.