Reply All’s Latest Episode Tackles Phone Scammers

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The world is made up of huge divides: socioeconomic, race, class, environmental—you name it. But the reality of a connected world often closes those gaps. These days, an interaction you might have on the street can easily be had on the phone or online. Including getting scammed.

That’s what the internet podcast Reply All explores in its latest episode, “Long Distance,” the first part of which is out today. Six months ago, host Alex Goldman got a call from a phone representative claiming to be Apple technical support, saying that Goldman’s iCloud account had been hacked. But when Goldman asked for proof that the rep was connected to Apple, he came up empty-handed. Goldman ended up calling the number back once a day for months, and to his surprise, the scammers picked up the phone. At first, the tables were turned; annoyed, they told him to stop calling. But through sheer persistence, Goldman got some details. “I kept the conversation light, and didn’t take them very seriously,” Goldman says.

Eventually, Goldman mapped out the contours of the scam: Several dozen employees from a call center based in India contacted people and told them their devices had been compromised. Once they were on the hook, the reps would sell them antivirus software for several hundred dollars.

In one way, story reflects how much of the world operates now, taking advantage of global economies of scale. Independent contractors work for on-demand companies like Uber, Postmates, and Lyft, trading traditional work benefits for flexile hours. An army of cheap laborers in the Philippines scour the internet, for everything from hardcore porn to beheadings in order to scrub them from platforms like Facebook. Low-paid and disgruntled workers watch the worst of YouTube to make sure ads aren’t being placed against hateful content—and they train Google’s AI. A guy sits in a call center in India, and tries to dupe Americans into buying bogus antivirus tech support online.

But Goldman’s investigation didn’t stop there. He talked with the call-center workers so often that he developed a relationship with them—and he learned more about why they took these types of jobs in the first place. “Most of the people you hear from, the people who are scamming you—even if they’re defensive or abusive on the phone—those are people who are not in the best situation,” Goldman says. “Those are people who don’t have an alternative.”

After several conversations with one worker, named Kunal, Goldman found out that most of the employees were from the northeastern part of India, who spoke great English but were very poor. “They told me you either worked at this call center, or McDonald’s,” he says. Eventually, he chatted with Kunal so often that their conversations branched out to video games and Indian food. And then, Goldman decided to meet him in person.

“At that point, I’d developed a relationship with these people in this call center, and we thought we couldn’t do this story justice unless we went to India,” says Goldman. “We’ve never done international reporting like this before.”

We don’t want to spoil the whole thing, but it’s worth a listen. Reply All typically shines when the hosts go deep into an internet rabbit hole, deftly explaining the ins and outs of some meme you’d only glancingly heard about. “Long Distance” strays from that style to mixed effect. So far, the series orbits around Goldman—his experiences, his thoughts about the scammers, how he’ll burn down the house to solve this puzzle. Hopefully future episodes shift the focus to the lives and motivations of the call-center workers themselves, and the vast inequality between the scammer and the scammed in this situation.

In the meantime, the launch episode highlights the rewards that Reply All‘s trademark persistence can reap. It’s what got Goldman the story in the first place: He kept calling.

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