My Telephone Call with a Scam Artist

It didn’t end the way I expected.

When I saw the number on the screen, I thought it was a telemarketer. Receiving several calls a week is not unusual for us and they always end the same way: with me hanging up on the caller.

I answered the phone anyway.

“Hello,” I said.

It wasn’t a telemarketer.

“Hello, Sir. My name is Matt Williams and I am calling from Microsoft Technical Services. We have detected a malfunction on your Windows Operating System. Your computer is at risk and this must be fixed. Do you own a computer with Windows installed on it?”

A number of things made me think this might not be legitimate, including:

1. This was the fourth call that I had received from “Microsoft Technical Services” in the past few months. The previous three were scams.

2. I use a MacBook and so my operating system is OS X, not Windows. Last I heard, Microsoft is not making house calls to users of Apple products.

3. “Matt Williams” had a very strong Indian accent — I have many Indian friends and am pretty good at spotting accents generally — and his name just didn’t ring true.

4. Only two hours earlier, I had received — coincidentally — another call from “Microsoft Technical Services”. That call was from “Mark Williams”. “Matt” sounded just like “Mark”. Brothers, perhaps?

5. The fact that “Matt” had to ask whether I owned a computer with Windows installed did not inspire confidence.

All things considered, it was clear that “Matt” was, in fact, another scam artist trying to dupe me. If you have never received one of these calls, the scam goes something like this:

(a) The caller gets you to go to a website and gives you a code to enter on the screen.

(b) The code enables the caller to take control of your computer. In a previous job, I had to do this a couple of times with our IT Services Department. In those cases, it was legitimate and very helpful. But it was still bizarre to see the mouse on your computer move about on its own, guided by a voice on the phone. From an IT perspective, you are, at that moment, completely naked and vulnerable.

(c) The caller then tells you he can fix the problem if you purchase some software. He gives you another website where you can make your payment.

(d) If you make the payment you get nothing and you lose your money. If you don’t make the payment, the caller can cause you serious problems by deleting your files. After all, he still controls your computer.

It’s a cruel scam and people who are fooled either lose money or important documents, photographs or other files.

The first time I received this kind of call, I strung the caller along for a good 20 minutes, pretending to enter the codes, pretending to be confused, pretending to follow the instructions. In the end, he realized what I was doing and unleashed a barrage of swearing upon me. I responded with a good laugh and hung up.

With subsequent calls, I just hung up. With “Matt”, however, I decided to try a different strategy. When he had finished his opening gambit, it was my turn to speak.

“Matt,” I began, “we both know that you don’t work for Microsoft. We both know that you’re based in India. We both know that your name isn’t Matt. And we both know that you’re trying to take over my computer and force me to pay for some software that I don’t need. And by the way, I don’t use Windows.”

Silence on the other end.

“Now listen,” I continued. “I’m not angry, I’m not going to call the police and I’m not going to take any kind of action. I just want to talk to you, OK?”

More silence.

“You’re obviously a bright guy. You know computers. You shouldn’t try to cheat people. It’s not right. You should be helping them fix their computers. You should have a proper job. When you go home, take a good look at yourself in the mirror. Is this how you want to spend your life? By cheating people?”

Silence.

And then …

“Sir … you are absolutely right … and I want to apologize to you for this call. But you see, sir, I have no choice. I am not rich like you, sir. Things are very hard for my family and me. This is the only job I can get. I cannot find honest work and I have to be able to feed my family.”

Now the silence was on my end.

“Sir, here in India, it is very hard for people like me. The boss here threatens everyone that they have to make these calls or else we will lose our jobs and then what will I do for my family?”

“Is there really no other way?” I asked. “Can’t you find work fixing computers or working for a company? What about telemarketing?” (Yes, I detest telemarketing and here I was now earnestly encouraging someone to become a telemarketer.)

“Sir,” he answered after a few moments, “I promise you I will try. I will try to find something else. I will try to be a good man. Thank you, sir.”

There was so much more that I wanted to ask him. Where did he live? How old were his children? What was his name?

But I never got the chance.

This time, the caller hung up on me.