Jan 26 2015

Interview with a Scammer

TechSupportI had a refreshingly honest discussion with a “Windows tech support” phone scammer who admitted to me he was a criminal and tried to justify himself.

This is the scam where a person with an Indian accent claims that every time you go on line, your computer is sending out messages indicating it’s infected with a virus. If you play along, the scammer gives you instructions to go into the Window Event Viewer. There are always events there – it’s normal – but the scammer tells you they’re proof of a virus on your system. If you stay on this long, you’ve been “pre-qualified” and the scammer transfers you to his “supervisor”. The supervisor then directs you to a web site to download and install remote-control software, then to give the supervisor control of your PC. Supposedly, this is to fix your computer, but in fact it allows the scammer to install any malware he wants.

My strategy has been to ask the scammer if he has told his mother what he does for a living. He’s usually confused by this question, so I explain that I know this is a scam and I want to find out if he feels any shame about it. I usually get one of two reactions at this point: either the scammer hangs up (he knows he’s not going to be able to scam me) or he stays on and vehemently asserts this is legitimate (maybe he sincerely doesn’t know he’s part of a scam).

But this guy said that he had told his mother what he does. I tried to clarify: “you’ve told your mother you’re a criminal?”


“So you feel no shame at all about it?”

“Why should I?”

I still wasn’t sure he understood my point – English might not be his first language. “Your job is to steal money from people, and you’re not ashamed?”

“No. You people are so stupid; you give thousands of dollars to people you don’t even know.”

I wasn’t sure if he was talking about the American lifestyle in general or his scam victims in particular. There was a time delay on the phone line, so we both ended up talking over each other a lot. But I asked him how much he makes. He said he makes $80,000. I wasn’t sure whether to believe him. On the one hand, if this scam is run like others I’ve gotten, he’s only reading a script and pre-qualifying marks – how much would he be paid? On the other hand, if he has a larger role in this particular operation, and if they snag a lot of victims, maybe he is making that much!

I said, “so every man has his price, and that’s yours.” He said “No.” I was confused again: “But you’ve sold your honor for $80,000.”

And then he said “I have no honor. Why would I sell it?”

I’m not used to people unabashedly admitting they have no honor. Even Islamic terrorists claim to have honor.

Then he explained himself some more. “You have so much money. What are you going to do with it? When you die, you can’t take it with you. You should give it to me.”

I said “But you’re going to die too.”

He said “you’re going to die before me”. “How do you know?” I asked. “I know.”

“Well,” I said, “you’re going to die before other people. Maybe you should give your money to them. Maybe we should all give our money to babies.” At this point, my 19 year old Freshman daughter piped up: “give it to the college students!” I whispered to her that I was already doing that.

My scammer friend didn’t seem interested in taking the logic that far, though. He said that he’d be able to use the money better than I could. (Some Keynesians would probably agree with him.) He said it didn’t matter because while we were on the phone, he had hacked my “account” (presumably my bank account) and taken my money. I told him that was a neat trick considering he didn’t know anything about me. He asked if I thought he was joking. “No, I think you’re lying.” He said he wasn’t, and I should check my account in half an hour and I’ll see it’s empty.

I wasn’t worried, but as a software engineer who deals with logic a lot, I was compelled to challenge the logic of his claim : “if you can hack my account that easily, without any information from me, why bother calling me?” “Because I like talking to you,” he said.

I think we were both fairly annoyed at each other at this point. When he said (heatedly) the he liked talking to me, it occurred to me that I wasn’t enjoying talking to him. We didn’t exactly hang up on each other – he said “bye” – but I don’t remember our final words.

I’m sure some people will think me naive for being surprised by any of this, and maybe I am. But it’s one thing to read about how criminals think in a newspaper or see it on TV, and it’s another thing to actually talk to one. It was an eye-opening experience.



  1. Dave

    Very interesting. I never answer our landline so I don’t get to talk to these people.

    I think these sorts of criminals (well, any sort of criminal) have several ways of thinking about what they do.

    1 – The victims deserve it because they’re stupid, rich (==evil), a certain nationality (==evil), religion, etc.

    2 – The victims deserve it because they’re criminals too. (Con men rely on this one – most cons, like 419 scams, depend on exploiting the victim’s own greed for ill-gotten gains.)

    3 – Cognitive dissonance; denial. They just avoid thinking about what they’re doing.

    4 – It’s justified by their own need – it’s survival, etc.

    5 – Somebody else pressured them into doing it. It’s that person’s fault, not their own.

    I have a bit of sympathy for #2 and #4.

    I think this guy was a #1. But perhaps he is a bit more moral than average – he either convinced himself well, or by arguing with you, was trying to convince himself of the truth of #1. I think he was more interesting in convincing himself than in convincing you.

    You might want to set up a recorder so you can post the audio of these conversations – that would be interesting.

  2. Dave

    BTW, I don’t think he was really making $80k. I think he made that up to impress you.

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