Before the days of the internet, the shady phone call offering you an irresistible investment opportunity likely came from a large suburban office in the U.S., with dozens of “salespeople” sitting side by side, glued to their landlines, the din made up of their pushy pitches. The goals were simple: Bond quickly with the client, then create a sense of urgency: If you don’t act now, you’ll lose the chance to make thousands of dollars!
Today, so-called boiler rooms (named that because the original illicit call centers were often set up in building basements) remain arguably the top purveyor of consumer fraud. They’re the ones bombarding your phones, email accounts, social media feeds and text screens with false pitches. And they still use those same high-pressure sales techniques. But technology has supercharged their scamming capabilities.
At the Beverly Hills office of Metals.com, a precious metals company that the federal government shut down in 2020 for defrauding older Americans out of $185 million, as many as 200 people sat in front of brand-new Apple computers, fitted out with headsets and an automatic dialing system that made calling hundreds of potential victims a day seamless, according to a former employee of the company who spoke to AARP on the condition of anonymity.
“You would just log in to the computer, you would turn your phone on ‘green,’ and it just automatically starts dialing for the next nine to 10 hours of your day,” the employee says. “The office was ridiculously loud.”
Boiler rooms are set up by a variety of actors. Some are former boiler room employees themselves; others used to be legitimate securities professionals who were previously accused of breaking the law.
A modern boiler room can also be a much cheaper, simpler operation. “People can do this from their homes if they want to,” says Joe Borg, head of the Alabama Securities Commission. “A boiler room that has 50 people in 50 different locations, to me, is still a boiler room.” And location isn’t an issue: Boiler rooms dialing into your home often are based in Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, India, Nigeria or a Caribbean island. All you need is a computer with an internet connection. Thanks to Voice over Internet Protocol, calling costs are low. You can spoof a phone number to look like it’s coming from the next town over, even if you’re actually 10,000 miles away.