Hello, this is Lenny

Scammers, telemarketers, and oh wait, my old (second) summer job. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

Quote of the Day

“I authorized an investigation and concluded his remarks were offensive and that he showed extremely poor judgment, but it did not appear to me that that his intentions were hateful or malicious.”

—New York Times editor in chief Dean Baquet, regarding allegations that a star reporter, Donald McNeil Jr., used the ’N-word’ repeatedly and made “wildly offensive and racist comments” while leading students on a NYT-sponsored trip to Peru.


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Gigantic criminal ecosystem

We pay for a landline at my house, since it’s bundled with everything else, but we haven’t had a phone plugged into the wall for years. There’s no point. The few times we tried, our Caller ID and voicemail filled with nothing but scammers and telemarketers.

Kind of the same thing on cell phones now, too, actually.

Perhaps you’ve wondered who’s behind all of these calls, offering you a “free trip to the Bahamas” or telling you that “the federal criminal division of the IRS” wants you to pay overdue taxes or they’ll send the police to your house.

There’s quite an interesting story in the NYT Magazine right now about some of this. It starts with an “an elderly grandmother who lives by herself in Crossville, Tenn.”

She gets a very aggressive scam call; long story short, it leads to the caller taking over her computer remotely, and convincing her to access an online bank account.

It’s a detective story. Writer Yudhijit Bhattacharjee works with a sort of hacker with a heart of gold to figure out where the scam caller is located. Bhattacharjee travels there—Kolkata, India—to try to track him down.

It’s not clear he finds “that” scammer, but Bhattacharjee finds one of his peers: a 20-something man named Shahbaz who runs scam after scam like this, making maybe a thousand dollars a month:

“The more we spoke, the more I recognized that Shahbaz was a small figure in this gigantic criminal ecosystem that constitutes the phone-scam industry, the equivalent of a pickpocket on a Kolkata bus who is unlucky enough to get caught in the act.

I asked if he ever felt guilty. He didn’t answer directly but said there had been times when he had let victims go after learning that they were struggling to pay bills or needed the money for medical expenses. But for most victims, his rationale seemed to be that they could afford to part with the few hundred dollars he was stealing."

It’s a well-reported story. There’s some complexity. I wound up feeling pity for a lot of people involved in it.

But I also still want to be able to use my phone, you know?

So before I wrap this up with a tidy bow, let’s take the opportunity to share one of my favorite scamming-the-phone-scammer tricks.

It’s called “Lenny.” As in, a “recording-slash-chatbot program” that entices telemarketers and worse to have long, meandering, no-destination calls with a friendly but befuddled elderly Australian man named Lenny, who doesn’t actually exist.

There’s a whole YouTube channel, of course, hour after hour after hour of scammers and telemarketers wasting their time. And there are other options, for example, the Jolly Roger Telephone Company gives you a whole array of recordings to choose from.

It feels good, but also a little guilty. Because there’s a big difference between being a telemarketer and a scammer. And, times are tough for some people, right? They probably didn’t grow up wanting to be telemarketers.

They’re trying to make a living. Maybe they’re parents trying to support a family.

Maybe they’re college kids working a second job (not scamming, just selling) over the summer before heading off on a study abroad program in London in the early 1990s.

Oh yeah. Right. I’ve had so many jobs in my life that I forgot about that one for a minute.

Apropos of nothing, let me end this by saying that if you lived in Rhode Island a few decades ago, and you remember a really persistent guy calling at dinnertime and trying to get you to consider “replacing your drafty old windows” with new ones “at a truly affordable price,” well—sorry about that.

7 other things worth your time

  • Today in GameStop: “A partisan Congress was unified by outrage after the app Robinhood and other retail stock trading companies froze some individual trading in response to a massive spike in GameStop and AMC stock fueled by internet chat rooms. Some hedge funds had bet big on the downfall of those companies, and the resulting volatility and the willingness of Robinhood to impose restrictions in a way that seemed to favor big investors and punish smaller ones irked Democrats and Republicans alike.” (CBS News)

  • I feel like I want to add that even the so-called PharmaBro, Martin Shkreli, who was once a moderator of the Reddit group where this all started, weighed in from federal prison, where he’s serving a seven-year sentence for fraud: “LOL this thing is so nuts,” he wrote in an email that was shared on Twitter.

  • The chief federal district judge in Washington DC ordered the man who was photographed in Speaker Pelosi’s office during the Jan. 6 insurgency held without bail pending trial. “We're still living here in Washington, DC, with the consequences of the violence that this defendant is alleged to have participated in," she said. (CNN)

  • I wrote yesterday about the city of San Francisco voting to strip names like Washington and Lincoln off their schools. If that story struck you as it did me, you’ll want to check this out: the poorly written and linked Google document that apparently contains the rationale and research for each one—sources like Wikipedia and Vox. (NYT via Twitter)

  • Give us 15 years, GM says, and all our cars will be electric. (Fox 5)

  • More judicial news: a U.S. judge ruled that two Americans can be extradited to Japan to face charges that they helped former Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn escape to Lebanon to avoid his own criminal case. The judge said under the law, it doesn’t matter that “prison conditions in Japan may be deplorable" or that “ criminal procedures … may not satisfy American notions of due process.” (Autoblog)

  • Imagine you’re stuck in your car, in a snowstorm on an Interstate, and after a while a couple of people knock on your window. They tell you that they’re public health workers who were on the way to a Covid vaccination clinic, and the doses they have with them are going to expire in a few hours. Do you want one? True story, from Oregon. (NYT, $)

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