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How one reporter uncovered the world of phone scams

July 30, 2017 at 5:43 PM EDT
How do phone scams actually work? That’s what Alex Goldman, co-host of Gimlet Media podcast Reply All, wondered recently when he answered a call and found himself the target of an attempted phone scam. He joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the results of his investigation, which was detailed on a recent episode of Reply All.
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Watch the full discussion on FaceBook here.

HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: We’ve all received spam phone calls from random numbers, but most of us don’t do what “Reply All” podcast host Alex Goldman did. I sat down with him earlier today.

Well, first of all, what did you do?

ALEX GOLDMAN, “REPLY ALL” PODCAST HOST: I got someone on the phone who was trying to sell me tech support, telling me that my iCloud had been compromised, that my computer was being looked at, my bank account was being looked at. And I knew right away that it wasn’t true, but I was curious just how far I could this person to go in terms of admitting what their business model is and sort of keeping them on the line.

Surprisingly, he was very candid with me. And so, I thought, oh, OK, so I got a phone call, told me to call back a 1-800 number. So, I basically keep this 1-800 number back and see what happens. And I thought to myself, this person is trying to steal money from me, and they know information about me that I’m not super comfortable with them knowing. What would it take for me to sort of flip that equation on its head, like what would happen if I tried to learn everything about them? And would it be possible?

SREENIVASAN: They take — you authorize them to take a look and view your screen and your computer screen.

GOLDMAN: Yes.

SREENIVASAN: What did you do with that process to sort of turn the tables on them?

GOLDMAN: Well, one of the things we did was, my — again Tim Howard, my executive producer, suggested, hey, you looked at their Facebook profiles, you know a lot about these guys. Why don’t you just put a picture of them on your desktop background and see how they react?

And it caught them totally off-guard. I was — I figured they just hang up on me. Instead, they put the boss on the phone.

SREENIVASAN: So, the scammer on the phone with you, taking a look at your computer and then, all of a sudden, he sees pictures of his co-workers on your desktop background.

GOLDMAN: Yes, yes.

SREENIVASAN: He’s like, wait, there’s something off of this.

GOLDMAN: Yes, the best is there’s a moment of silence and he just says, OK.

SREENIVASAN: That’s just a sliver of our conversation. You can find the rest on our Facebook page. The next episode of “Reply All”, including what happens when Alex goes to India to meet the man who tried to scam him comes out this Thursday.

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