Let's Reminisce: Robocalls, scams & click farms
By Jerry Lincecum
Jan 22, 2019
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As I began writing this column, we received our second robocall of the day.  Since we have caller ID we don’t answer the phone without seeing where the call is coming from.  When the call is shown as originating from a number “Not in Service,” that’s a sure sign that it’s from a telemarketing campaign.

I’m sure you are familiar with the now common ploy called spoofing. The robocaller uses software to transmit a number different from the one he’s actually calling from. Sometimes robocallers even send numbers that appear to belong to the Internal Revenue Service or a reputable company such as Microsoft.  Or they may simply spoof with an “official” looking number, such as one with a Washington, D.C., 202 area code, to make a call look legitimate.

The latest version of deceit is called neighbor spoofing.  Robocallers transmit a number with the same area code and exchange as your own.  This encourages people to answer the phone because they think it’s somebody in their community.  When my wife and I see one like that, we let it go to the answering machine and listen to see whether the caller leaves a message that sounds legitimate.

According to the Wall Street Journal, one of the newer scams is powered by something called “click farms.”  An example is a place in Bangladesh where dozens of young men crowd into tiny rooms with 30 computers. Their mission is to trick  They open and repeatedly type in search terms, each time clicking on the links of certain products they are paid to promote. Amazon’s algorithms begin recognizing that these products appear to be very popular.  The higher the popularity, the better chance of sales.

A slightly more sophisticated form of trickery takes the form of fake evaluations of products.  For example, a recent search for a “blackheadremover” mask turned up many options. One of the top-ranked results, labeled “Amazon’s Choice,” appeared to have hundreds of reviews, averaging 4.3 stars.  But if you tried to read the reviews, only the first four of them were actually related to the mask—the hundreds of others mostly evaluated a battery charger.  Someone in Bangladesh had copied the unrelated reviews and pasted them into the reviews for the mask.

Now it’s day two of my composing this column.  Today we received a robocall that left a message on our answering machine, claiming we owed someone a large amount of money and would face criminal proceedings unless we promptly returned their call.  Since we had heard on a local TV news program to be on guard for a scam of this nature, we ignored the message.  No doubt they wanted a credit card or bank account number.

Some people are now striking back against robocallers in a variety of ways. One tactic is to play dumb just to keep the caller on the line. Another is to ask the caller to spell your name and drag out the process, trapping them in a fruitless conversation for as long as possible. (“Is that L as in Lima, Peru? Or L as in long way from home?”) On social media people share tips on how to have fun with callers, and the topic has become its own genre of entertainment on YouTube.

The next time a phone scammer tells you he is calling from the IRS, ask him if you can use gift cards from Target and Walmart to pay the bill.  He will probably say that is fine and ask you to give him the serial numbers.  Make up numbers and see how far you can get.  If he tells you those are not valid numbers, apologize and say you just returned from your neighborhood tavern and had a little too much to drink.

Admittedly, it’s not the peons making the calls who are responsible for this plague.  But they do know what they’re doing is unethical and wrong. If you’d like to join in the fun, go to YouTube and look up Robocall Revenge for ways to proceed.

Jerry Lincecum is a retired English professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories.  A new class begins at Grayson College on Feb. 6 as part of the TEAMS program for senior citizens: