Game of Phones

flip phone 0419I have called myself maybe three times now. I don’t ever answer and I don’t leave a message, so I don’t know what I want.

Sounds like an existential crisis, right? But it’s instead a robo-call crisis, and it’s one of CBS News’ favorite themes. By the middle of this year, they keep saying, over half of all calls will be from robots — and not the good kind. (I’m sure there must be a good kind.)

Lynn and I had a landline up until a year or so ago, when the physical line itself was deteriorating and the CenturyLink people tried every which way to blame us before they finally discovered it was their line, outside the house, that was at fault. We are no longer CenturyLink customers, by the way. And that company should understand that if you have to tell your customers you’re giving them “excellent” customer service, you’re probably not.

For a long time before that, we didn’t have a caller ID, although in one of their repair phases we ended up getting it, along with a pile of other “services” we never used. That made it much easier to tell which calls were real and which were the perky-voiced woman with her way-too-cheery “Hi!” I don’t know that I’ve ever stayed on the line long enough to learn what Perky wants to sell me, but she, or her realistic yet robo voice, wants to sell me.

The first time a scammer/phisher/sales person used a local number to call me, I was completely crushed. Because caller ID said it was one of my book group members. I answered, expecting to talk to Jeff — and instead, it was a robo-voice.

I kept falling for that one. Sometimes they were 641 (our local exchange) numbers I didn’t know, but I still assumed they were legitimate calls. And one day I picked up the phone expecting it to be my friend Vikki, only to be disappointed again.

The landline went away, but I am getting more and more calls from 641 numbers. Sometimes it’s easier to tell it’s going to be a crank call: if the set of four digits starts up high, like with a 7, chances are good that it’s not a “real” call. (Although the school district numbers all start with 7.)

I suppose, technically, they are all “real” calls; the phone rings and a connection is made, no matter how tenuous or unwanted. But a “real” call as in someone you might want to talk to. Or you don’t “want” to talk to them, but they’re calling about something that matters to you: your ad in the paper, the item you ordered has come in, that sort of stuff.

So if it’s 641-7-something, I know it’s safe to ignore. But the phishers seem to be grabbing lots of numbers, including mine, 641-2427. So my phone rings —

(It doesn’t “ring” at all, it plays a tango. I went through the entire set of ringtone options that came with the phone and selected the one that worked for a ballroom dancer.)

— it rings, and I look to see who it is, and it’s ME. I don’t know how the little photo of a giraffe got attached to my number, but it’s there next to all my outbound calls, and now it’s showing up as the phone rings and announces that the incoming call is from the giraffe at 641-2427.

And since I know I didn’t call myself for any reason, I don’t answer. But maybe I should — perhaps I have important news to impart to myself. A timeshare offer in Arizona, possibly. A free cruise. Perhaps the grandson I’ve never had is in jail somewhere and needs bailing out — please don’t tell Mom and Dad.

At work we get a lot of e-mails that are clearly phishing, but in all these years, I haven’t figured out how the scam works. Someone named “Joe” or “Alice” or some other wholesome name, very American-sounding, usually in the worst English possible wants to know if they can order 500 blank white Gildan shirts, size medium, from me. And what types of payment do I accept?

The name changes, the shirt quantity sometimes varies (although 500 is a reliable number), the color and size (although it’s always only one size), but there’s one constant: What types of payment do you accept?

I mark these e-mails as spam (how did we come to malign a perfectly good meat product in this manner?) and go on about my day, but I still keep trying to figure out how this scam works.

Because I assume, if I was going to get suckered, I would reply with great enthusiasm at the notion of selling a lot of shirts without having to do any work. Why, yes, I would be happy to sell you blank white shirts, I would e-mail back. And we take all major credit cards.

But what happens next? The scammers know they have a live e-mail with someone who can be played like a fish at the end of a line? So somehow they send me malware? They could gain financially, perhaps, if they sent ransomware. Or maybe they continue with the request and place an order for 500 shirts, which I then blithely proceed to ship, without the hint of a raised eyebrow, to an address in Nigeria. And they provide a bogus credit card, so I am out the money for 500 shirts. What are they going to do with those? Sell them for $1 each? To medium-sized people?

I know people locally who have fallen for the “Oh, I sent a check for too much; can you send me the balance?” and then the check is bad. The locals are out their saddle and whatever money they trustingly sent to the scammer. But how would that work with a credit card?

So I haven’t figured out how this scam is a real money-maker for anyone. And I don’t know how much money any of these robo-calls make for their originators, although I read just this morning that the internet allows them to place thousands of calls without expending much money or effort. But I don’t like it when they hijack my own number and use it to call me.

This has been my phone number almost my entire life. After my mom and John got married, John’s mom wanted him to be able to keep his phone number, so we ended up with two phones, one on either side of the kitchen wall. This may have been the first and only time my mother was glad she inadvertently gave all three of us kids the same initials, because she put our number under “T.L. Livermore,” with no argument about whose name it was going to be under. And, that had an additional bonus as we all went off on our own, because all three of us already had good standing with the phone company and didn’t need to pay deposits.

Back in those days of immobile phones, the funny joke for anyone in our house (resident or guest) was to get on a phone on one side of the kitchen wall and call the other number. No one ever paid enough attention to notice, so when the other phone rang, whoever was closest naively answered it — to laughter and merriment.

In a way, that was a precursor to me calling myself. But calling ourselves back then seemed a lot funnier than when I call myself today. Even if I don’t answer.

2 thoughts on “Game of Phones

  1. Is Spam really a perfectly good meat product? Really? And we had Century Link for about a year when we moved as it was the only service in our new ‘hood. We dropped them as soon as feasibly possible. And I’m not sad about it. And spammers suck. That is all.

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