The telemarketing calls had stopped. No more worried messages from Jessica at Card Services. There were several possible reasons:
1. The FCC had finally done something about it. Maybe they moved staff out of the Telegraph Fraud Division and had some resources to deal with this newfangled telephone situation.
2. The scammer had been overcome with guilt, and quit. He was running late-night commercials: “Hi, I’m Vic LeDoosh, the guy behind all those phone schemes that preyed on vulnerable old people. I couldn’t live with myself anymore, so I moved to Africa to bring clean water to villages. I can’t ask for your forgiveness, but some day when you’re having supper, and the phone doesn’t ring, it’s me.”
3. They were working on a new gimmick that would make you answer an unfamiliar number on your cellphone, which was previously immune from these miserable criminals, who should be forced to do jumping jacks while wearing a cheese grater in their pants.
The answer, of course, is 3.
In the past, the scammers would spoof a number that showed up on your caller ID with a local area code, because they’d figured out a way to make caller ID lie. The phone company is apparently powerless against such devious genius.
Now there’s a new wrinkle: The scammers spoof your cell phone prefix. They don’t spoof your own number, even though you’d answer that in a second: “Oh gosh, it’s me. I hope I didn’t get in an accident or something.” No, it’s enough to send a fake 825 prefix to people whose numbers start with 825. Why?
Because you trust it. After all, you’re 825, and you’re on the level. It’s like a club of distant relations.
My prefix is not common, so the first time I saw it on my cellphone I thought: maybe a long-lost twin. Better answer. Whoever came up with this is a bad person. On the scale of one to Hitler, he’s a 493. Suitable punishment: boiled in oil, dusted with a light breading, served to sharks with tartar sauce.
But the voice of the scammer is new, too. It’s much more realistic, and doesn’t sound like a recording at all. She’s fresh, young, happy — why, she could be your daughter or sister, workin’ her way through school while helping people lower their credit card balances. It goes like this:
“Oh, hi! Sorry, my headphones slipped off! Sorry. This is Melody! Can you hear me?”
You say “Yes,” and the phone call records this as proof you are asserting to whatever they’re trying to do.
But you know the scam, so you say, “I am pushing a large walnut up my nose.” She says, “I’m sorry, I didn’t get that. Is it OK if I continue?”
“In my dreams I hear the screams of russet potatoes, fed to machines that make French fries.”
Eventually the scammer robot gives up, and you have the satisfaction of knowing that you wasted a robot’s time, which is like arguing with a drinking fountain.
Here’s my problem: As an important member of the media who frequently gets calls about my column (as in, “I didn’t get my paper this morning,” or “I want a vacation hold”), I have to answer the phone. So answer I do. But if it’s my prefix, I give a fake name now.
“Hello, Follicle Granite Earbud.”
“Hi! This is Melody.”
Which brings us to villain No. 2. Whoever Melody is, she’s not a computer-generated voice. Computers can’t fake that laughing “dropped my headset” routine, not yet. It’s some voice actress who knew exactly what she was doing. Imagine the recording session. “So I pretend I dropped my headset? OK. What’s my motivation?”
“Your youthful honesty disarms the mark, who is charmed by your guilelessness, and imagines a granddaughter whom they miss, and who doesn’t call.”
“OK! And where I say, ‘We can lower your rates, but we really need your bank’s routing address,’ do you want me to emphasize ‘really’ or ‘need?’ ”
“Just read the copy and you get your cat back unharmed.”
I’d like to think that the actress had a kidnapped pet, and was performing the script under duress, but no. She knew what she was doing. On a scale of one to Hitler: three. Suitable punishment: Her entire IMDB entry consists of “Waitress (Uncredited).”
Wouldn’t you love to talk to the CEO of your phone company about these ads?
“Hey, I’ve been getting calls that have my prefix.”
“I know. Weird, huh? I get those, too.”
“Uh, you get them? What do you do?”
“I block the number. Well, I have my assistant block the number; she knows that technical stuff.”
“But that doesn’t work. They just come in from another fake number. You’re telling me you run the phone company, and you can’t figure out how to stop them?”
“Gosh, where do you start with something like that?”
“Trace the source, find the physical location for the scammers and tell the government, which could arrest them and bring back the public stocks so we could throw rotten avocados?”
“Trace the calls? Interesting idea.”
Eh. The only solution is something that the millennial generation has devised: Never answer your phone.
They’re right. No good can possibly come of answering your phone. You know the first words spoken on the phone were, “Come here Watson, I need you.”
But do you know what came next? “I want to lower your rates.”