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Hacker Uses Skills to Take Down a Phone Scam Operation

'Jim Browning' fights to save potential victims from cyber schemes

Episode 89 Undercover Hacker

AARP

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In the UK an IT professional who goes by the alias Jim Browning is battling cyber scams. Fed up with robocalls disrupting his day, Jim decides to fight back. As con artists try to scam him, Jim uses his professional training to reverse engineer his way into their computers. With the ability to see everything on these computers, Jim works to thwart their operations and save potential victims.  


(MUSIC SEGUE)

(phone ring)

[00:00:04] Thank you for dialing support. How can I help you?

[00:00:06] Hello, yes, I've got a problem on my computer. It seems to be locked. There's a warning message. Can you help?

[00:00:13] What is the warning message? Can you please read it for me?

[00:00:16] Yes, it says "security warning, Microsoft warning alert." It says something about Facebook logins and credit card details.

[00:00:24] All right. So you don't need to worry about that. I will help you.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:00:31] Bob: Welcome back to The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Bob Sullivan. This week we've got a special episode.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:00:40] Bob: That call you were just listening to, that's not a customer support call. You're listening to a scam. You probably received a call that sounds something like this, hopefully you just hung up. But here's what happens if you don't. A criminal will offer to help fix your computer. It's not really broken, and perhaps try to charge you a few hundred dollars or worse. The criminal might offer a refund for your tech trouble, and then this might happen.

[00:01:10] Looks like ma'am, I have made a mistake out here. What is the balance you can see right now in your checking account, ma'am?

[00:01:16] (inaudible)

[00:01:17] All right, ma'am, yes ma'am. Actually I was going to, I was giving you the numbers, the confirmation number for the refund, and at that point of time I was processing you the refund, but by mistakenly, ma'am, I credited $15,000 in your checking account.

[00:01:32] Bob: The panicked operator then begs the woman to send the $15,000 back. Of course, there was no mistake in credit. It's just a way to steal $15,000. And that's how the scam is supposed to work, but unfortunately for the criminal in this case, this is no ordinary scam phone call. This is a call being monitored by an internet vigilante who goes by the name of Jim Browning.

[00:01:59] Jim Browning: With your computer alert, it's easy to see what's going on.

Q:        Jim, operating on his own, hacks into scam call centers and interferes with their operations.

[00:02:07] So what we are going to do is, ma'am, it's very easy and simple. We are going to send you $15,000...

Q:        In this case, he's one step ahead of the criminal. While Patricia, the victim, gets ready to send money to the criminal through her bank, Jim is on the phone with her bank.

[00:02:25] Jim Browning: While she was talking to the scammers, I was having this conversation with the bank's manager.

[00:02:31] Bank Manager: Yes, sir. This is Dean Feathers, I'm the President of the bank, and I've got a couple of my ladies here with me. So at the bank.

[00:02:37] Jim Browning: Okay.

[00:02:38] Jim Browning: I explained what had happened to Patricia and that I didn't have her phone number.

[00:02:42] Bank Manager: I know, just a second. Let me ask, did she withdraw $14,000?

[00:02:47] No, set it up for online banking.

[00:02:48] Bank Manager: She set up online bank--, okay.

[00:02:49] Actually we did it...

[00:02:50] We shut it down.

[00:02:51] Bank Manager: Okay, we just shut it down based on the information you're giving us. Okay?

[00:02:56] Jim Browning: Okay. Good.

[00:02:56] Bank Manager: We just shut it down.

[00:02:57] Bob: Jim Browning has stopped hundreds of scams this way, and disrupted thousands more by listening in on scam calls.

[00:03:05] Jim Browning: These fake virus messages are all too common on the internet, but sometimes it's possible to find out the full details of exactly who's behind the phone number on the screen. And to give those scammers a real scare, this time, I ended up speaking to Niffin or (inaudible).

[00:03:24] Jim Browning: How long have you been doing the scamming?

[00:03:28] Sir, I'm not scamming you.

[00:03:31] Jim Browning: Well, of course, you are. That's a fake virus message, so of course you're scamming me. Undoubtedly...

[00:03:39] Oh no, I'm here to help you.

[00:03:41] Jim Browning: No, you're going to show me the stop services and try and convince me that's a problem.

[00:03:47] Because you don't know who I am.

[00:03:48] Jim Browning: I do.

[00:03:48] Same way I don't know who you are.

[00:03:50] Jim Browning: I do.

[00:03:51] I (inaudible)

[00:03:51] Jim Browning: Okay, I'll ask you then, where are you?

[00:03:57] I'm sorry, where am I?

[00:03:59] Jim Browning: Where are you, yeah.

[00:04:00] My room.

[00:04:01] Jim Browning: Where, what city.

[00:04:02] I'm in my room.

[00:04:03] Jim Browning: Obviously, but so am I. That doesn't tell me anything. So which city are you in?

[00:04:08] Yeah.

[00:04:09] Jim Browning: Okay, I'll have a go. (inaudible)

[00:04:11] In California.

[00:04:13] Jim Browning: No, you're not. See, you're lying again. You're in Gurugram.

[00:04:19] Bob: How's does Jim Browning do that? He hacks into their computers. When they call him and try to take over his PC, he does the same to them. It's probably illegal, but he thinks it's worth the risk. He's been at it for 6 years, but more recently, he hit paydirt when he was able to hack into a scam call center's CCTV cameras. That let him watch in real time as criminals try to talk victims into sending money. It also made Jim Browning internet famous. YouTube videos of his confrontations with scammers get millions of views.

[00:04:56] Jim Browning: Over the past 6 months, I've had unprecedented access to a scam call center. This video gives a unique view of how these scams operate and who these scammers really are.

[00:05:08] Critical alert from Microsoft. (glass breaking)

[00:05:11] Jim Browning: You’re looking at the web cam of a scammer named Deva (bleep). He is currently uploading phone numbers of people who will be his next potential victims.

[00:05:20] Bob: And for the past year, AARP Washington State Director, and fraud expert Doug Shadel was allowed to virtually ride along as Jim tried to stop scams in progress.

[00:05:30] Doug Shadel: Yeah, it was about a year ago, and I just sort of stumbled onto his YouTube page and started watching these videos, and I just couldn't take my eyes off them, because for years, you know, we had stood on the outside of these transactions. Everybody's gotten those robocall messages that say, "There's something wrong with your computer," or a pop-up appears and says, "You've got a virus, call this number." But we never really knew what was behind it. I mean most people hang up and don't respond to it, but here's a guy who not only responded but has figured out a way to just find out everything about it, so I was fascinated.

[00:06:07] Bob: Jim let Doug see everything he was doing, everything that is, except his face.

[00:06:13] Doug Shadel: Yeah, well this started in the summer, and I just said, you know, are you willing to let me just sort of tag along with you so I can see how you do your work? And typically what would happen is he's in Europe, and I'm in Seattle, so I would call him, you know, every couple days at about 1 o'clock my time. He, basically, he has a day job and so like I said, he records all this bad guy activity during the day, and then when he comes home at night, so by 8 or 9 o'clock at night, he's in his room where he does all this magic. And we would just Skype together. We'd turn the cameras off, 'cause he didn't even want me to see who he was.

[00:06:53] Bob: The chance to watch a crime happening in real time, maybe even stop it was incredible. At times, Doug actually joined Team Jim in trying to stop scams in progress, but there wasn't always a happy ending.

[00:07:07] Doug Shadel: So, a typical, we'd spend an hour, an hour and a half on Skype with him just pulling up the recordings for that day, and in at least three or four cases, I would say, I would say to him, "Okay, so when did this happen?" and he goes, "Well actually this is happening right now, and this woman is about to send $10,000 to a money mule in California." I'm like, "Well, well, well, wait a minute. What, what, we can't let her do that. What should we do?" And there are a lot of times when he didn't have the victim's phone number, and I would look it up on you know, Been Verified or some other data aggregator source that I subscribe to, and give him the phone number. So he'd call me and say, "I need this woman's phone number." "Why?" "Well, because she's going to 7-Eleven to buy gift cards," or "she's about to wire money." I'd give him the phone numbers. This happened just a couple weeks ago, actually, we, we're still kind of doing it every so often, and in, in that case it was an 80-year-old gentleman who was on his way to Target, I believe, to get gift cards. We couldn't reach him, but I had given Jim his daughter's phone number, and he was able to reach his daughter on the cellphone, and the daughter quickly called her father, but it was too late. He'd already gone to Target, gotten the gift cards, and read the serial numbers from the gift cards over to the scammer. At which point the money is gone. because there's no way to get it back.

[00:08:30] Bob: I'm picturing this scene and your like heart rate going up and, and this is a race against time, just like on television, isn't it?

[00:08:37] Doug Shadel: I, yeah, it really was like that. And it's, it happens a lot because as you, as you realize he's inside the scammer's computer in real time watching them.

[00:08:47] Bob: What was that moment like when you found out, like oh, we got to, first it's success, right, we got the daughter on the phone, right, that feels good, right.

[00:08:53] Doug Shadel: Right.

[00:08:54] Bob: And then you find it's too late. How did that feels?

[00:08:58] Doug Shadel: It's enormously frustrating. And it's, it's, it's exhilarating and frustrating at the same time, because there are as many cases of failure as there are success in this work.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:09:11] Bob: The success stories stick with Doug.

[00:09:14] Doug Shadel: Yeah, there was a guy up in Canada who, it was a typical refund scam where he was thinks, he thought he was going to get like a $400 refund, and then they said, "Oh no, we accidentally deposited $40,000." "Well I don't have $40,000 in my account right now." Anyway, he was on his way to 7-Eleven, and you could hear the phone in his pocket kind of rumbling around because they keep you on the phone when they're doing this. They're like, "Okay, I've just looked it up, and you're in a small town, but there is a 7-Eleven that's six blocks from you. Go to that 7-Eleven and I want you to buy three gift cards for $500 each, and we'll just start with that. And that will, if you can just give us that much, we'll be good," right. Jim is seeing all of this, what we're watching is he's frantically trying to call the victim um, but the victim's still on the phone. He finally gets through at the last minute, but before that you could hear the victim going up to 7-Eleven, he goes up to the clerk. The clerk kind of knows him. He says he wants to buy these cards. The clerk is trying to talk him out of it because he's like, "Ah, I've seen this before. Are you sure? Did you get a call? Was this because of a call?" He goes, "Yeah, it was, but I'm pretty sure it was a scam, but that's the only way I can get out of it, because at this point, they've got a hold of my whole bank account. And if I don't do this, they're going to just take all of my money. " And the, so the clerk reluctantly starts issuing these gift cards, and then at that moment, Jim gets through to him, and he picks up and, and Jim is like, frantically saying, "Stop what you're doing. Do not buy those gift cards, I'll explain it to you." He goes, "Yeah, but you don't understand. They've got all my money." "No, they don't. I've been watching the whole situation. It's all trickery, it's all, they’re going into your computer and changing the html code to make it look like all your money's gone, but it really isn't, and I'll explain it all to you." So he goes, "Okay, well I guess I'll trust you," even though he doesn't really know who Jim is either.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:11:11] Bob: Who is Jim? Well, we know he know he works in IT. Doug knows a little more about him. He's verified a lot of details in Jim's stories. But otherwise, he's a mystery.

[00:11:24] Jim Browning: Yeah, it's, I, I live a strange existence in the evenings. I, I, I listen in to scams and literally even if, if we weren't speaking at the moment, I would probably be doing exactly that. I've got, let's say a number of computers that I can see. They're owned by scammers. At some point or another, um, the people who own those PCs would have tried to scam me. And I've used their connection in reverse, so I can literally go back to their computers and watch what they're doing. And say, if we weren't talking that there may be four or five computers that I could see and hear, and I can hear the scammers trying to scam people. And I was live streaming some of this to Doug, so just that he could see everything that was going on on my screen, and yeah, we were watching some of these live, and I had to politely say, look, I need to hang up the call here, 'cause I can just see somebody being scammed, I can see her phone number, 'cause the scammers type all this stuff out, or you can see it from their automatic dialers, and I, we'd go in and try to help anybody that I could see being scammed.

[00:12:35] Bob: You can think of Jim as a digital age superhero. Mild-mannered IT guy during the day, defender of people at night. How did he get started? Jim says there was no made for TV moment.

[00:12:48] Jim Browning: I wish I'd had a kind of clever story about how I got into it, but it was actually by accident more than anything. So, yes, I get a lot of these phone calls and obviously like anyone else, I try to follow them up and see where they lead.

[00:13:03] Bob: Well, I, I think a lot of people have fantasized about that, but I'm not sure a lot of people have followed up to the degree that, that you have, but just take a wild guess. So you're, you're getting these calls like everyone does, was it the, the 10th call or the thousandth call that really pissed you off enough to, to go this route?

[00:13:22] Jim Browning: Well, they all piss me off to some extent, I've got to say. Um, nobody likes getting those calls. I mean I; I am fortunate enough to be able to work at home some days, and I was finding that these phone calls were coming frequently enough that they were interrupting my day job, and there's nothing worse than getting a, a scam phone call and you can hear immediately that it's a scam phone call, um, telling the person stop calling me, and then to be phoned maybe 10 or 15 minutes later by someone, maybe not even the same call center, but running the same scam. It, it's just, it's incredibly annoying, and I guess with the engineer head on me, I was thinking that surely, I have worked in software and telecoms and networks for so long, maybe there's something that I can do as an engineer to see if I could try to not even as much as get to the bottom of the scams...

[00:14:17] Bob: He started very slowly making raw videos that only a few people watched.

[00:14:22] Bob: So the first time you tried anything like this, was it premeditated? Or were you just, all, all right, that's it. I'm, I'm engaging here. How did it go?

[00:14:32] Jim Browning: Yeah, well no, not, not premeditated at all. In fact, the first video I put onto YouTube was to say this just the consequence of I recorded the scam and I felt I would try to get the internet service provider of the guy who was running the scam to take a look at this and try and do something about it. And so I started very slowly, and I purely recorded basically my own voice and what was happening on my computer and left it at that.

[00:15:00] Bob: What Jim did then is called scam baiting. Keep a criminal on the phone, play along with the scam for a while, and you waste their time. That just might save someone else from becoming a victim. Scam baiting has actually been around for a long time, and small groups of volunteers chronicle their adventures on web pages and on YouTube. As they say, you shouldn't really try this at home, because there are a lot of risks to scam baiting; some obvious, some less so. Anyway, Jim's hack/back technique took scam baiting to another level. The chance to see criminals in the act, sitting in large call centers, operating just like any other business, well as Doug said, it's hard to take your eyes off those videos.

[00:15:45] Jim Browning: Yeah, I mean it was quite slow progress. I think I've um, put videos on since 2014 or 2015, so six years. Um over that time. I've kind of got a very slow audience build up for some of the videos that I put up there, but I'd say in the last two or three years, where I've have taken a few extra steps. I've gone a little bit beyond recording the scam, and I've gone right back to the scammer. And I think since I did that, then the audience, uh has shot up and as I say I, even just last year I, I reached about a million subscribers on YouTube and this year it's approaching 3 million, so I've been certainly doing well in the last year, year and a half.

[00:16:28] Bob: Despite building a group of avid fans, Jim was frustrated. No one seemed to care very much about this massive scam industry he was chronicling, and by no one, he means law enforcement. Until, that is, the BBC aired a piece about this call center security video hack.

[00:16:45] Jim Browning: It's amazingly frustrating going to the police and then there to say this is happening on your doorstep, and can you please do something about it? And until the BBC documentary, until I brought external press into it, I have been completely ignored, but I released a video last May, or it might have been about a year ago, I guess, last March, and I involved the BBC in that, and as soon as I released that video, within 12 hours the call center had been raided and the main guy who was in charge of that call center was making millions, was then arrested. But I, up until that point, until the mainstream press were engaged, I'd heard absolutely nothing. I think I got one email in the previous five years and then all of a sudden there was a raid.

[00:17:38] Bob: Jim nearly got to watch the arrest happen in real time.

[00:17:41] Jim Browning: I was almost watching events unfold live because I have a, another guy who does a YouTube channel based in Delhi, and he had a tip off that the police were going to raid this call center, and I was almost getting it blow by blow and he was able to go into the, the press conference, and you know, interview some of the, the people they were arresting, the guys in the call center. So I mean I kind of recorded a lot of that at the time but never actually published it, but for me anyway, it was kind of not really a vindication of the work, but it was certainly something that I'd been building to, so if you can imagine, if you've been running a YouTube channel for four or five years and nothing's happened, you can get pretty frustrated, so I would say that point was definitely a highlight, I've got to say.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:18:31] Bob: The call center's owner and an accomplice where arrested outside Delhi in India. According to the Times of India, the 30-year-old owner lived a lavish lifestyle, even driving a Porsche to work every day all on the backs of scam phone calls. Jim felt great that finally law enforcement was involved, but the problem is, there are plenty more criminals where he comes from. Jim witnesses a lot of pain and suffering.

[00:18:58] Jim Browning: I've encountered people who are uh severely disabled sometimes. There was one woman in one video that I had put online, and she said that she was legally blind, she was a diabetic, and she'd been given a year to live, and for most people even if you're a scammer, you would think that that would prick a little bit of their conscience and maybe not proceed, but I listened to the whole scam phone call, and the guy still went ahead with trying to get as much money as he possibly could out of this woman. And it's just very difficult to listen to that without thinking how on earth can that scammer sleep at night? I think that's one of the more horrific things. I've heard other things like even kids being scammed, but I think that one stands out particularly.

[00:19:52] Bob: When he can, he tries to help. It's harder than you might think, however.

[00:19:57] Jim Browning: I try my best to intervene when I can. Sometimes it's impossible though. If I don't have the victim's phone number, for example, it's very hard to get a timely message to them, and sometimes if, particularly if they're being asked, for example, to go to their bank and withdraw cash or something, what I have to do is phone that, hopefully get the right branch, phone the bank and say, "Look, there's going to be an elderly person coming..." usually elderly person... "coming in here to withdraw cash. Please look out for them because they're being scammed." And some banks are quite receptive to that, others say, "How do you know this person?" as you can imagine, and if you're not a friend or relative, they'll say, "Well, can you put the account holder on here, so that we could talk to them?" And you have to then give a very elaborate explanation about why I'm making the phone call. So it can be quite difficult.

[00:20:52] Bob: My God, even just getting a, a call to the correct branch would be very difficult I would think.

[00:20:57] Jim Browning: Yeah, sometimes you can see that they've been asked to go to their local branch, so I will literally see what the scammers are seeing. They will have access to the victim's computer...

[00:21:07] Bob: And sometimes...

[00:21:08] (automated message) All of our representatives are currently busy, please...

[00:21:11] Bob: Jim just ends up on hold like the rest of us.

[00:21:13] Jim Browning: I use the same phone lines that everybody else does, and you can be on a phone call in a queue for minutes or hours before you get through to somebody, which is incredibly frustrating if somebody's literally on the way to that bank, but I, I do, unfortunately I get that quite a lot of the time.

[00:21:32] Bob: So this is a real thing. You're on hold with a bank while watching someone get thousands of dollars stolen from them.

[00:21:39] Jim Browning: Yeah, yep. There's been a case a couple of weeks ago where and it wasn't a bank, they were, the, the victim had been instructed to go to a Best Buy to buy gift cards, this is the currency of scammers these days. They, they quite often get the victims to go in and buy these things, and they knew exactly which branch of Best Buy they were going to. And, unfortunately, it was incredibly close to where the victim lived, it was less than five minutes. I was on the phone call for about five or six minutes. I did get through to their customer services, and the customer service person said, "Ah yes, that person was in about a couple of minutes ago, 'cause I served them." And you're thinking, ah, if only, but uh, yeah, you know that, that you try your best, but some people inevitably will get scammed and there's not much you can do about it.

[00:22:31] Bob: Another big challenge Jim faces, getting people to believe he's really there to help.

[00:22:36] Bob: So here's how old I am. I used to hang out in chat rooms where credit cards, stolen credit card numbers were traded, and if I saw one that was recognizable, if there was a phone number or something, I, at that point the trade was so small, I would try to call and say, "Hey, I just saw your credit card number in this chat room. You should call your bank." And I got the reaction that I'm sure you get in spades, which is, "Why are you trying to scam me?"

[00:22:59] Jim Browning: Yep, exactly that, yeah.

[00:23:01] Bob: And I'd have these techniques such as they were to try to convince them, no, no, no, no, I'm the good guy. You must face that, and when you face that, what do you do?

[00:23:10] Jim Browning: Oh, it is difficult, and it depends who I'm talking to. If I am talking to a bank, um, I usually try and be as open as I can. I will tell them, "Look, I can see that somebody's being scammed here." And usually give them enough information like, here's the last four digits of their account number. They have exactly this amount of money in there, and here's the name of the person. And that's usually enough to convince them that yes, that this person must be able to see something going on. But it's actually more difficult talking to the victims.

[00:23:43] Bob: Doug has seen Jim talk agitated victims away from the edge of a cliff. He thinks Jim's style is what helps him.

[00:23:50] Doug Shadel: My observation of it is Jim just has one of those voices. He sounds very calm and very measured, and at the point where he does these interventions, my take on it is that a lot of the people are so, and and they've gotten them into a state of anxiety. They know on some level that something's not right here, but they don't know how to get out of it. And when he calls, you know, this calm voice from Ireland, they trust him, you know.

[00:24:19] Bob: He also stays remarkably calm, almost satirically calm when he's turning the tables on the scammers.

[00:24:26] Jim Browning: I'm sorry. Why have you gone all quiet?

[00:24:29] Charging you (inaudible) the call...

[00:24:30] Jim Browning: You're going to report this to... are you going to report this to Archie? Yeah, it's quite spiky whenever somebody knows exactly who you are, where you are, yeah.

[00:24:42] Doug Shadel: Jim has cold steel running through his veins when it comes to this. He's not out to, I mean his videos can be entertaining, just 'cause they're so intrinsically interesting, you're so inside the operation, but he really wants to just stop it. You know, like he told me one time, "I could go in there and wipe out their computers. I could install a virus on every one of these guys computers, and just wipe them out, but I don't want to do that because you learn more about their operation by just observing it and then reporting it to the police," which is what he did.

[00:25:18] Bob: In fact, Doug says Jim has so much cold steel running through his veins that it wasn't easy writing about him.

[00:25:25] Doug Shadel: So the other thing is that at some point my editor came back and said, "You know this is all very good content, but I'm not seeing any of the emotion in Jim. Where is the, where is the passion and the emotion?" And I'm like, he's an engineer. You know, he's an IT professional, he's an engineer, and it doesn't mean he doesn't have emotion, but part of the reason he's so effective and different from everybody else is that he's not just flailing around wildly screaming at these guys and they scream at him, he's systematically and methodically going in and trying to figure out what ways to disrupt, whether it's doing individual interventions or whether it's finding software that will flood their call center with white noise which he's done a couple times, just to shut down the room, or whether it's hacking into the close-circuit television and then individually picking these people out and making fun of them.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:26:22] Bob: Doug thinks Jim has genuinely caught the consumer protection bug.

[00:26:27] Doug Shadel: I take it at face value. I've worked with him long enough, you know, you work this close with a person for a year, this is his mission now. I mean it started out as kind of just a hobby, something to do at night, but now he's caught the consumer protection bug. He's a fraud fighter, this is the reason he does it, is he really wants to make a difference.

[00:26:45] Bob: And he does make a difference, not just to the individual victims he helps, and not just because of that BBC raid. The scammer at the beginning of this podcast, the New York Times actually sent a reporter to Kolkata to track the criminal down with Jim's help. At this point, it's obvious that by taking scam baiting this far, Jim has made plenty of enemies, but if that makes him nervous, he doesn't show it.

[00:27:12] Bob: I'm amazed by the community of the folks who do that, but again, you’ve taken it another level. Don't you feel like it's dangerous though?

[00:27:20] Jim Browning: I guess it can be if it, I mean I would never risk my own computer. Whenever scammers connect into my computer, it's not my real computer, it's one which I've set up especially for this, so although there might a load of files sitting there and photographs and everything else, they are not my real uh, you know, I'm not jeopardizing any of my own data. But the worry is always that they've just called you on a certain number, and they're going to find out more information if, if you try to get back at them. But I'm quite cautious about the way my computer on a deed phoneline is set up, and I have hundreds of phone numbers, it's possible to do this, and I sit and wait for the phone calls. And even if the scammer knows my phone number, it's literally, it's a virtual phone number, and I will just remove that from the inventory after I've used it, and go on to another one. And I also run something called a VPN, which technically means that they don't know really where I'm really based, and a lot of the time if, if the scammers are advertising a US phone number, even though I'm not in the US, I will look as if I am, if that makes sense. So what, who I am, where I am, and my phone number aren't really known to scammers, so I kind of protect myself that way. I don't really want, if I'm interrupting million dollar scams, I don't really want them to know anything about me. So I am quite cautious about it.

[00:29:00] Bob: But it still seems like you're costing people a lot of money, especially in the BBC situation, so I uh, I think that most folks would see what you're doing as dangerous.

[00:29:10] Jim Browning: A little bit. I, you know, obviously the, the scam call center that the BBC focused on, the guy at the top was making about 3 million dollars a year, was living in the lap of luxury. His apartment cost something like the equivalent of $10,000 a month, which, if you're in India, is just completely unheard of money. And yeah, he was, he, he set himself up as a legitimate businessman. In fact, he was, he was running a separate business which was a front for his scamming operation. He was running like a travel agency, and the people who worked in the offices may or may not have known that his real business was literally in a building behind where he worked, and that's where all the scamming was going on, and that's where he was making most of his money. And he was effectively an organized criminal, uh but had a, a very decent front to all of that. And no one, I guess, would have suspected that this guy was behind a multimillion dollar scam operation. If you looked at his Facebook pages, what his wife was doing, you would just say, just a successful businessman. But behind the scenes there's a huge scamming operation behind it all. But he was a, let's say a medium-sized scamming organization. I've seen uh, call centers with 300 plus people working in them, and they would be making tens of millions of dollars per year in running scams. And I'd say that one, he was kind of a medium-sized player. There are much bigger players in India.

[00:30:54] Bob: And when I asked if he's a hero, he deflects.

[00:30:58] Bob: But I do want to ask you, when people call you a hero, what do you think of that?

[00:31:03] Jim Browning: Well no, it's not... if, if you were in my position, you would do the same thing. And if you call that heroic, fine, but it's not the way I see it. I, I earn a living from YouTube as well. It's not really about I am just looking at scams and seeing how they work. I like putting out onto YouTube of course, um, but you know, if, if I can see this stuff going on I'm using for YouTube channel, I think I'm obliged to step in. I can't, I couldn't just watch a crime happening and not doing anything about it. So I don't think that's heroic in any way. I think it's more a side effect of what I'm trying to do with scams. That, that's the way I describe it.

[00:31:48] Bob: Because Jim has spent countless hours listening to scammers do their dirty work, he has a lot of thoughts about who they are and insights into how they operate. Most of all, he understands why some people stay on the line with criminals and follow their instructions while others just hang up. Listen as he explains the role of luck and of timing in scam work.

[00:32:12] Jim Browning: I've literally listened to thousands of phone calls, so I'm listening at the same time as the scammer's making those phone calls. The vast majority of people recognize immediately the scam, but if you've just placed an order with Amazon or something's gone wrong with Amazon, and you suddenly get a phone call from Amazon, your guard will be down, because even though it's a coincidence, you will, you're more inclined to believe that the phone call's real. These guys who are running the scam phone calls will make hundreds of thousands of phone calls to try and get a few victims. So it's a numbers' game for them. They are bound to get someone who believes what they're saying because of coincidences or they just never heard of the type of scam that I see all the time before.

[00:33:02] Bob: And also, it's really obvious in his work. Call center criminals are very good at what they do. They're often ready for any twist or turn a call can make.

[00:33:13] Jim Browning: Whenever you get a robocall, say and that the robocall will sound something like, "An iPhone has been placed against your account, press 1 to speak to an agent," and the vast majority of people that I hear answering that sort of phone call, the first thing they'll say is, "I don't have an Amazon account, that you must be wrong here." And the scammers are geared up for that and they will say, "Yes, you don't have an Amazon account, I can see it. I'm Amazon, I can see you haven't got any registered, but somebody else has just registered an account in your name using your address and your phone number." And they'll read out the phone number, of course, they're on the call with the person, they can see that phone number. But they've got these lines well practiced, and they'll, of course, they're effective and they'll say, "Well can you cancel that order. Obviously, I didn't use raise it." And that's just a segue into their scam, and they will say right, "If you want to cancel this, 'cause obviously you will be charged, then you're going to have to fill out a form to stop, to cancel that order."

[00:34:20] Bob: Doug has advice specific to the tech support scam that Jim works on.

[00:34:24] Doug Shadel: I think the one mistake people make when it comes to these tech support scams is when something goes wrong with your computer, you start kind of freaking out. Don't freak out. Don't, I mean one of the, even independent of the bad guys that Jim catches, another danger here is if you think there's something wrong with your computer, you go onto the internet and you, you google something like "computer running slowly."

[00:34:52] Bob: I asked Doug, why did AARP do this story now? And listeners, you can read it now, it's really great, it's in the April issue of AARP's Bulletin.

[00:35:01] Doug Shadel: I think it's the confluence of the explosion of robocalls hitting the country, the fact that technology is driving it, and it's so cheap to do all that robodialing, and the fact that older people are the primary targets, especially for tech support scams. Tech support fraud is one of the top imposter scams in the country, but we know that the primary victim set are people over the age of 60. So all of those things converge to make us really concerned about it, and I personally am more concerned about it. Once I hung out with Jim and realized that these bad guys are not just going for a $200 repair job, they want to get inside your bank account and take $20,000, $40,000, $80,000 at a time. That is super alarming. That's the difference between living a comfortable life in retirement and not.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:36:04] Bob: If you have been targeted by a scam or fraud, you are not alone. Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. Their trained fraud specialists can provide you with free support and guidance on what to do next. Thank you to our team of scambusters; Executive Producer, Julie Getz; Producer, Brook Ellis; Associate Producer and Researcher, Megan DeMagnus; our Audio Engineer, Julio Gonzalez; and of course, Fraud Expert, Frank Abagnale. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP's The Perfect Scam, I'm Bob Sullivan.

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AARP’s Fraud Watch Network can help you spot and avoid scams. Sign up for free Watchdog Alerts, review our scam-tracking map, or call our toll-free fraud helpline at 877-908-3360 if you or a loved one suspect you’ve been a victim.

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