How a Vox reporter took on the phone scammers and won
Earlier this month, police in India arrested over 750 people in a raid on nine call centres just outside Mumbai. The centres had been calling hundreds of Americans a day posing as officials from the IRS and demanding they pay the debt or face jail time.
"Hi, my name is Steve Smith. I am an investigations officer with the IRS. Are you aware that you're under investigation?"
That's how Alvin Chang, a graphics reporter for Vox Media, describes the calls. He got to know the scammers' script pretty well in the lead-up to their arrest — sometimes fielding calls from them multiple times a day.
"They'd say 'Let me tell you that under this section of the IRS tax code, you owe $5,780. And if you don't pay within the next hour, we're [going to] have to send local police to arrest you.'"
Thanks to his experience reporting on tax policy, Chang says he realized early on that it was all a scam. But rather than hang up or hit 'reject,' he spent weeks fielding call after call from fake officers like Steve Smith, live-tweeting his interactions with these callers and then writing about the experience for Vox.
Not so easy to spot
"I thought virtually everyone else would pick up on [the scam], but then I talked to my parents, who are first generation immigrants — smart, educated people — and they started asking me if these were real IRS calls; and then I realized, 'Okay maybe, this isn't as easy to parse out.'"
I totally understand the feeling of just wanting it to go away.- Alvin Chang
Plenty of people did fall for it. Between 2013 and 2015, the scam is said to have cost its U.S. victims more than $15 million.
Chang understands why so many fall for these scams. He says it's terrifying for someone to get a call accusing them of tax evasion, because it's a realistic scenario and the threat of arrest makes it worse.
"I think that taps into a fear that we all have, where we don't necessarily know what we're doing wrong, but we're doing something wrong. I totally understand the feeling of just wanting it to go away," he says.
It's when the frequency of these calls grew — two to three times a day — that Chang decided to fight back.
"I got annoyed enough that I would call them back because they were wasting my time and didn't know how else to get back at them."
"Initially, I would ask for an ID number, which at first they didn't have and would start to argue with me, whether or not ID numbers were a real thing," he says.
I just thought, 'Ok this is the time that I'm going to get to the end of this. I'm going to figure out how this works.'- Alvin Chang
He also started repeating their script back to them — often reciting it in unison with them.
"Some of them would get very angry. Several of them cursed and said 'Stop wasting my time.' And others would just hang up," he says.
The end game
Then, he began to play along.
"It was one particular day that they called, when I just thought, 'Ok this is the time that I'm going to get to the end of this. I'm going to figure out how this works.'"
Chang says it was difficult to get through the entire scam, because it involved a lot of theatrical effort. "I just had to pretend like I was following their instructions."
The scammers asked Chang to go to his nearest drugstore to purchase iTunes gift cards, and then read off the numbers on the back. That was the scammers' payment method of choice.
But in reality, he was sitting at his desk and banging on the table to mimic the sound of a cab door closing.
"I don't think they know what New York City sounds like... But they were convinced that I was outside," he says.
He then pretended to talk to a cashier as if he was buying a gift card. He looked up images of iTunes gift cards so he would be able to rattle off numbers that matched the format.
After the raid
When he heard that the scammers were arrested, Chang says initially felt satisfied.
But as he recalled the time he worked at a call centre, he began to feel some empathy for the men involved in the scheme.
"I hated the job. I quit after six hours, but I imagine most people can't quit after six hours," he says.
That said, he admits it would have been difficult to empathize if they had scammed his parents.
"It's easy to have empathy for people when they haven't hurt you, or they tried to hurt you and didn't. But it's much harder when they've actually taken advantage of someone in your life, who is very vulnerable."