These scammers had called me so many times that I knew their script.
They always introduced themselves as IRS officers with inconspicuous American names, like "Paul Thomas." They called to collect the $6,000 I owed the IRS. And if I didn't pay, they threatened to send the local police to arrest me.
They were unconvincing. I didn't understand how this scam could work on anyone. But a quick search led me to a couple in Tennessee, a student in Virginia, and thousands of others who'd fallen for the scam. There was something about this scam that worked — and I had to find out what it was.
So I got further and further into the scam. At first, I played along for a few minutes and then hung up. After a few days, I trolled them with the vast amount I learned about their operation. Then, on a hot mid-September day, I decided enough was enough.
I was going to get to the end of this scam.
That's how I ended up talking to "Steve Smith" for 30 minutes. He was a senior investigations officer — the actual person who walks you through how to send them money. I learned that his secret is maintaining an aura of authority. That's how he optimizes fear. That's how he gets people to suspend logic, drive to Walgreens, and buy iTunes gift cards to pay the IRS. The scam takes advantage of the most vulnerable people.
So I was quite satisfied when, a few weeks ago, Indian police arrested more than 70 people in connection with this scam. The subsequent news stories gave me a fuller picture of this operation. I learned there were nine call centers employing 770 people. I learned that each employee talked to more than 100 Americans a day — and three to four of them would make payments. I learned the scam netted about $150,000 a day.
But then I got this link from a friend, which was mesmerizing because of the pictures. I couldn't stop staring. They were mostly young men, about my age, being led away by authorities. I couldn't help but wonder how many of them I had talked to. I couldn't help but wonder which one was Steve Smith. And for the first time, I wondered if most of them were just desperate people reading scripts.
Stage 1: Trying to gain back power by trolling the scammers
The hardest thing about phone scams is that there is little recourse you can take. Even if you don't fall for the scam, they waste your time, over and over again. It got so bad that I started live-tweeting these calls:
2) Man on the other end, Joy Smith, says I owe $5,188 because of miscalculations on my taxes.— Alvin Chang (@alv9n) September 12, 2016
3) And if I don't sign up for a payment plan, the local police will contact me an imprison me for five years.— Alvin Chang (@alv9n) September 12, 2016
4) So I told asked if I could brush my teeth and get ready for they came to my apartment.— Alvin Chang (@alv9n) September 12, 2016
The only way I knew to gain back power was by trolling them. One time, an agent named "Paul Thomas" called and began to read the script. But I had heard the script dozens of times, so I started to say it in unison with him. Then I asked for his ID number. He got angry. He claimed the IRS didn't have employee ID numbers, so I told him everyone has an ID number. I told him mine was D4598.
From that point forward, every employee at this call center seemed to have an ID number.
Fake IRS dude called again. I took notes from last time, so before he could read his script, I read it first.— Alvin Chang (@alv9n) September 14, 2016
Another time, a woman named "Sarah Jones" called and started to read the script. Again, I said the script before she could even start.
Got another call from the fake IRS. This time, "Sarah Jones" yelled at me: "I'm not here to entertain you, alright?" Then hung up.— Alvin Chang (@alv9n) September 14, 2016
At some point, I had wasted so much of their time that I thought they would take me off their call list. But they called again and again.
Stage 2: Learning how they create and leverage authority
There were many flaws to this scam.
One was that it was almost always an Indian man in a call center, which made it hard to believe their names were "Steve Smith" and "Joy Smith." The other was that they clearly read off a script, and were trying to get through their lines as fast as possible. You could hear the steady hum of their colleagues doing the same.
But over the next few months, they refined their technique. The scammers started introducing themselves by name. They assigned themselves ID numbers. They had a system that kept track of how much money you owed; that way, if you called them back, they were able to repeat back your balance. And they cited Section 7201 of the federal tax code, which is the actual section about tax evasion.
In short, they professionalized the scam. They found ways to implicitly suggest they were authority figures.
I knew how this worked. The summer after my freshman year of college, I was back home in Kansas, trying to make some money. I found an ad in the classifieds section of a company looking for sales representatives. I showed up to a storefront and interviewed with a tall white man in a tie. I gave him my résumé. He gave me a job.
Then he guided me to the back of the store where I met my dozen colleagues, mostly in their 40s and 50s. Everyone was sitting at desks separated by dividers. The only things on the desks were phones and call sheets.
The manager took me into a side office, and we practiced sales calls. He gave me a script. "Hello, my name is [say your name], and I'm calling to ask about where you get your drinking water." The script went on to describe how important it was to drink filtered water, which we could deliver to their home.
Then the manager said something I'll never forget: "The most important thing about this job is sounding professional."
I made a few dozen calls. They all hung up on me.
At lunch, I sat in the break room with my colleagues. Some of them had been there for years. One man in a yellow tie gave me a tip: Tell your customers the water is filtered through reverse osmosis.
Stage 3: Finding out how they scare you — and make you suspend logic
On September 14, the scammers called again.
The scammer this time was "Jeff Demer," and he had the unfortunate luck of calling me after I had eaten at Chipotle, which tends to make me moody. He read the script. I played along. Before he finished reading, I told him I wanted to pay immediately.
"Do not interrupt me!" he said.
I let him finish reading. Then he asked me if my tax fraud was intentional or by mistake.
"It was intentional," I said.
"Uhh, great. Since it was a mistake…"
I imagine their script looked something like this.
He said I could either fight this in a federal courthouse or I could resolve the case right now. I said I would pay now.
Jeff said, "Great. I will transfer you to my senior officer."
OMG, they called again. I'm getting transferred to a "senior officer" who will help me arrange monthly payments to the IRS.— Alvin Chang (@alv9n) September 14, 2016
That's how I met "Steve Smith." From what I could gather, Steve really was higher on the totem pole than Jeff. It seemed like there were dozens of low-level scammers calling people, and the people who agreed to pay were forwarded to these senior employees.
Steve said I should go to an authorized government payment center. I said I didn't know what those were, so he said a Walgreens would do fine. So I pretended to get in a cab. I pretended to tell the cab driver to go to the local Walgreens. I mimicked the sound of the car door closing by hitting my desk.
I am now pretending to be in the taxi, going to Walgreens to wire him money.— Alvin Chang (@alv9n) September 14, 2016
He gave me instructions that were unintelligible. So I just assumed he wanted me to buy a money order. I asked him who I should send it to.
There was clearly a miscommunication. I knew I had made a mistake.
Nooooooooooo! He asked me what the money order screen said, and I said it was a dollar amount. It was the wrong answer. He hung up.— Alvin Chang (@alv9n) September 14, 2016
But something must've tickled Steve, because he called back. He apologized for hanging up. And then he said I should go to the gift cards section at Walgreens. Okay, I said.
"What do you see?"
I quickly Googled images of different gift cards — Home Depot, Lowe's, Amazon, iTunes.
"Yes, that one — iTunes gift card," he said. "What is the biggest one you see?"
Again, I searched Google Images and found a card that let me put up to $500 on it. I told him there were four of these. Steve told me to grab all of them and put $450 on each one, for a total of $1,800.
I pretended that I was at a register paying for the cards.
"Mr. Smith," I said, "I'm in the parking lot now. What do I do?"
He asked me to scratch off the numbers and read them to him. I knew the format had to be correct, because he would check it.
I am now providing iTunes gift card number, from a Google Image.— Alvin Chang (@alv9n) September 14, 2016
OH SHIT. It worked. I'm giving him a second card number.— Alvin Chang (@alv9n) September 14, 2016
I got a rush out of realizing that this was the end of the scam — that it works through this absolutely absurd tactic of getting people to transfer money through iTunes gift cards.
But let's stop and think about this: This actually works on a lot of Americans. It's tempting to want to mock those people, but even after weeks of trolling them, the tenor of Steve's voice reminded me of being chided by people with authority — teachers, police officers, and even my parents. I understood the feeling of wanting it to just go away.
I gave him two more numbers.
I just yelled, "P as in panda bear!"— Alvin Chang (@alv9n) September 14, 2016
But after the third, Steve paused. "Uh, sir…"
He hung up :( I don't know what I did wrong. Next time, I need to go buy iTunes gift cards and then try this.— Alvin Chang (@alv9n) September 14, 2016
Stage 4: Force them to come up with an end game
What I craved in this interaction was a glimpse into Steve's humanity. I wanted to hear some kind of emotion, some kind of indication that he was aware of what he was doing. I wanted to elicit remorse.
Guys. I'm calling back.— Alvin Chang (@alv9n) September 14, 2016
I got Steve back on the phone, but he said he didn't want the card numbers anymore.
So I ask if I can buy music with the other cards. He says yes.— Alvin Chang (@alv9n) September 14, 2016
Then I asked what I should do if the police still show up. "What if they don't believe me? What if they still take me to jail?"
And I asked what happened to the rest of the debt, since I only paid $1,350 of the $6,000 I owed.
Then he says the rest of the balance is forgiven.— Alvin Chang (@alv9n) September 14, 2016
I asked him how I would prove this, and he told me the iTunes gift cards would do.
I could hear a woman laughing in the background.
I protested. I said they wouldn’t believe me — that I needed a receipt.
Steve was yelling at this point.
And then he says my taxes are forgiven for the next 24 years. And when I complained, he said I was forgiven for life.— Alvin Chang (@alv9n) September 14, 2016
Stage 5: Justice, maybe
They were caught. I assumed Steve was among those arrested. I couldn’t stop reading news stories that had small details of how their operation worked, because it only confirmed everything I had learned.
In order to have nearly 800 employees, the ringleaders must've put out ads for "investigations officers," targeted at people desperate for jobs. I imagine these people were interviewed and taken into side rooms for practice calls. I imagined they spent entire days harassing and terrifying random Americans. And surely, some or all of them realized this wasn’t a legitimate operation — that they didn't actually work for the IRS.
But I imagine someone told them to stay professional, because that's the most important part of the job. Because that's what gives you power. That's what lets you manipulate people.
As for my call center career, it ended after six hours. I didn't sell a single unit. My boss came by my desk and asked how I was doing. I said this wasn't exactly the opportunity I was looking for. He said, "So what do you want to do?"
I looked around at my colleagues, leaning back in their chairs, making call after call, trying to convince people their tap water wasn't good enough. There were still two hours left in the day — for me, that was probably 20 more cold calls.
I burst out crying.
"Go home," my boss said, disgusted. "Leave me your address and I'll send you a check."
I was just 19 years old. Walking out on a grown man seemed wrong, like I was ditching school. But I got in my car, drove away, and started thinking about what else I could do to pass the summer. Worst case, I thought, I could mow lawns for my neighbors.