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Former NASA Engineer Shares How He Gets Even With Scammers

Mark Rober discusses the 'glitterbomb package' and other creative ways he gets back at fraudsters

spinner image former nasa engineer mark rober working in his california lab
Mark Rober works in his California lab.
Courtesy Mark Rober

File this story in the “be careful whom you mess with” folder.

When thieves took an Amazon package off a California front porch in 2018, they had no idea whom they were stealing from. It was Mark Rober, a former NASA engineer-turned-YouTube superstar famous for his ingenious science videos, such as creating an Olympic-level obstacle course to keep squirrels out of his bird feeders (it’s been viewed some 99 million times).

“I felt super violated” by the theft, Rober recalls. (Ironically, the package had contained a $5 combination lock.) “I thought, If anyone is going to do something about this, it should be me. I helped put rovers on Mars. I can stop packages from getting stolen.”

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So Rober, 42, rigged a package with a hidden camera he could monitor and a “bomb” inside that exploded into a cloud of glitter when it was opened. Then he waited for a crook to steal it. The resulting video of a porch pirate getting glitter-bombed has been watched some 88 million times and greatly raised the issue among consumers and law enforcement.

Rober’s anti-crime crusading could have ended there; he’s worked on other stunts like filling a pool with gelatin to see what a belly flop would feel like (117 million people have watched that one). But instead, the episode opened his eyes to the broader issues of consumer fraud. So he set his ambitions higher: to take on illicit call centers in India that often target older Americans.

His most recent mission took 18 months to plan and execute. 

Working with other YouTube fraud vigilantes (including Jim Browning, the pseudonym of a Northern Irish fraud fighter profiled in the April 2021 issue of the AARP Bulletinand Trilogy Media, two scam fighters who are based in Los Angeles), Rober designed intricate machines that, when triggered, would expel some scary stuff into a room.

The elaborate scheme worked: When the trap was sprung, a criminal call center in Kolkata, India, was overrun with cockroaches,​rats, a noxious-smelling spray and glitter bombs. The resulting mayhem was captured on closed-circuit TV cameras that Rober’s team had hacked.

The surprise attack at least temporarily idled several scam call centers. The group shared its work with Indian officials, and the result, according to news outlets in India, has been multiple arrests.

The Bulletin talked with Rober about his adventures in crime fighting and next steps.

How surprised were you at the vastness of the fraud industry?

Very. It was definitely more organized than I was anticipating — like with the money mules in the United States and how that was all structured. They have good technology and good training. This isn’t a rinky-dink setup.

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How sophisticated are the criminal organizations you encountered?

If Microsoft was remotely running their call center in India, it wouldn’t look a lot different from these scam call centers. These [scam] companies optimize the best way to make outbound calls and basically are salespeople. But instead of, say, trying to sell you auto insurance, they’re convincing you that something is wrong and that you need to take action for some fictitious scenario.

Was the Kolkata mission risky to your local agents?

If I knew what I know now, I don’t know if I would have done it. The call center owners are criminals. They make about $20 million a year — and to some people, human life is worth less than $20 million. They could, at the very least, rough someone up to try to protect their assets. On the other side, for a lot of those agents, who are ex-scammers, it was personal. They had seen firsthand the devastation that this industry causes to a lot of people.

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What led you from pursuing porch pirates to going after international phone fraud?

I was in the middle of putting together a glitter bomb and kept getting [interrupted by] a bunch of spam calls. I like using engineering anywhere there is justice to be pursued. Any time you can find someone like that to mess with, it’s perfect, because everyone’s going to be rooting for you. And it feels really cathartic.

Why do you think criminal call centers target older Americans?

One of their tactics is to overwhelm and pressure people, especially when it comes to technology. On average, older Americans are less technologically savvy because they didn’t grow up with it. Also, they have worked most of their lives, so some older people have a lot of money — or at least more than a 20-year-old. It’s a combination of those two things.

spinner image a rat escapes into a scam call center in india
A rat escapes into a scam call center in India
Courtesy Mark Rober

You avoid victim blaming.

The people who think they’re too smart to get scammed tend to be the people who feel so foolish when it does happen, that they don’t report it. There is something to be said about destigmatizing getting scammed. Scammers simply get people on the wrong day, at the wrong time.

Do you feel you have ways to fight fraud that law enforcement cannot?

I have been told that by multiple law enforcement agencies. If you name all the major law enforcement agencies, at least one person from each has reached out to us to ask questions, or for evidence or techniques. It’s an arm’s race, though, because scammers change their tactics. Hopefully, we can tip the balance back, at least temporarily, in favor of the victims.

Is your fight against call centers still going on?

There is one that is still operational, that we have agents in right now, that will be shut down soon, I hope.

Any surprises for porch pirates?

Yes. It will have something to do with drones. That’s all I’m saying.

What other criminals are you targeting?

The smash-and-grab thieves who are breaking car windows and stealing from the vehicles. Here in the San Francisco Bay area, it’s really bad. I’ll be working potentially with some law enforcement. There will be a very uncharitable amount of fart spray involved.

Is the feedback that you get on YouTube different for scam-busting videos than it is for your more usual posts?

Yeah. I get a lot of people who personally message me or comment how they have a grandparent or a loved one who, sadly, got scammed out of a bunch of money. And how heartbreaking it is — and frustrating and embarrassing and devastating, in some cases. In other cases, they barely stopped it in the nick of time. But in all the cases, they’re grateful that this content’s being pushed out.

What could end this wave of phone fraud?

The Indian government needs to get serious and actually make it easier to prosecute these crimes. Because right now, someone says, “Hey, my grandmother just got called. She just lost $20,000!” The folks in law enforcement [in the U.S.] are, like: “It is so not worth our time to try and track this down. It is just going to be a dead end.” The other way to handle it is to educate people. And​that is what I am doing with my videos. I am trying to educate people by making entertaining content. So at least people know how the scam works.

Katherine Skiba is a veteran journalist and writer.

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