Inside the World of a Scam-Busting YouTuber
Scammer Payback shares stories and advice to help listeners avoid scams
With over 2 million subscribers, Scammer Payback captivates YouTube viewers with his ability to spot scams and flip the script on the scammers. In this special interview, host Bob Sullivan sits down with Scammer Payback (also known as P) and learns more about the man and the methods behind his successful channel. They’ll talk about how P got started, his most interesting confrontations, his experiences inside the call centers where these scammers work, and his tips for listeners on how to stay safe and keep their information secure.
[00:00:01] Bob: This week on The Perfect Scam.
[00:00:04] Pierogi: How many people do you have working at Microsoft.
[00:00:07] Scammer: A lot, we cannot, we cannot even count. Ma'am, if you look on the top there will be help.
[00:00:12] Pierogi: Yes.
[00:00:13] Scammer: H-e-l-p -- help. Click on that.
[00:00:14] Pierogi: What's your website?
[00:00:15] Scammer: microsoft.com
[00:00:17] Pierogi: Oh, you don't work for Microsoft. Come on, now sweetie.
[00:00:20] Pierogi: You're doing a short scam?
[00:00:21] Scammer: It's a short scan.
[00:00:23] Pierogi: Yeah, short scam.
[00:00:24] Scammer: It’s a scan, short scam.
[00:00:25] Pierogi: Yes. No, a scan. I'm sorry honey, I have a Southern accent, so, I don't know if maybe you're not hearing me.
[00:00:32] Scammer: Oh I was.
[00:00:33] Pierogi: Why would you try to, why would you try to, to tell me that there’s fake viruses is on my computer, and then tell me that I owe you $25,000? How about you have all of your files gone for trying to steal money from an old person?
[00:00:49] Scammer: I don't want to take any money from you.
[00:00:51] Pierogi: Yes you do. And your files are gone.
[00:00:55] Scammer: How do you know that?
[00:00:57] Pierogi: Because I'm Vivian Helen Veronica Rogers, and you do not mess with old people. Do you hear me?
[00:01:07] Bob: Welcome back to another season of The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Bob Sullivan. To kick things off, we have a very special guest. The man behind Scammer Payback, and yes, that was just one man you heard in that opening montage. He calls himself Pierogi, and he's a hero on the internet to everyone except professional scammers. Well, he's a hero even to some of them. Pierogi is a scam baiter. He takes call the rest of us shouldn't even answer. Engages with criminals, hacks their computers, often disabling them and deleting files all the while filming the whole thing. Then he puts the videos on YouTube to educate others about the dirty tactics criminals use to steal money over the internet. As you heard, he sometimes uses a cast of characters even changing his voice to catch criminals in the act. You may not know what color his hair will be when you tune into his videos, bright blue is among his favorites, but you can be sure he'll make you laugh, and you'll root for him when you ride along as he takes criminals on wild goose chases. But make no mistake, Pierogi is deadly serious, and he puts a dent in criminal operations by destroying their digital assets. Millions of people watch these films. Single videos get as many as 5 million views. He's been doing this for years, and now Perfect Scam listeners, you're going to meet Pierogi and his cast of victims.
[00:02:43] Pierogi: I worked in the IT world in specifically cybersecurity for a number of years and these guys also tried going after my grandmother a, a different way. There's a grandma scam that's been pretty rampant in the United States, and I decided in 2019 to go take my efforts to go after them as much as I could and cause some damage and havoc and save some people along the way, so.
[00:03:06] Bob: So this is personal.
[00:03:07] Pierogi: Yeah, it's, it's really sad as I've gone through this whole process of going after scammers, you know, I think at first a lot of people see it as it's laughter and jokes and pranks and things like that, but then you really start to, or I started to come across a lot of victims. I've come across a number of other victims that have lost everything, and upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars, and it's really sad when you have that reality that you're going up against criminals and what's at stake are people's bank accounts and all of their money and all of their livelihoods. It's a really sad uh reality, and that's kind of what keeps me driving and going every single day.
[00:03:49] Bob: Are you willing to talk just a little bit more about what they tried with your grandmother?
[00:03:53] Pierogi: Yeah, so this scam is, I call it the grandma scam. I, I think it's been called that a couple of other places as well, but essentially what happens is they have their scammers in the United States that will go down a list of, a phone book list, you know, if you will, and they call up what they believe to be a grandmother, an older, elderly person, or a grandfather. Okay, in this, in this case it was my grandmother, and they said that I was in trouble. So they say, "Hey," um, you know, "Is this X-Y-Z?" And then my grandmother said, "Yes." And they said, "Well your grandson is in trouble. So, the great thing was that my aunt was actually there taking care of my grandmother and had gone to the store to get some groceries, and had her debit card with her, so my grandmother was, was unable to really do anything, or take any money out or anything like that, so that was really nice. And then, of course, she called my dad and verified that everything was okay with me and all of that. So, I've heard a lot of times where this has worked, and people have stolen millions and millions of dollars uh from unsuspecting victims that thought it was their grandchild. It's really, really sad.
[00:04:56] Bob: That incident and hearing about many others led this mild-mannered IT worker to put on a digital superhero cape and set out on a vigilante's life fighting online crime. He adopted the pseudo name, Pierogi.
[00:05:11] Pierogi: My wife is Eastern European. She introduced me to a number of different foods, one of them being pierogis. So I really was just thinking one day, because I had to have some kind of name to protect my identity as much as I can, right. I just thought Pierogi was really interesting because who doesn't like eating pierogis and uh it kind of was a, it was a, a shout out to my wife, and again, her, you know, Eastern European family and roots and things like that. So, and I thought it was unique as well, and it's a short name too, so I thought it just worked out for the Scammer Payback channel as a whole, but I really like eating pierogis, I like boiling them and then frying them on the stove with some onions, and then dipping them in sour cream, and it's a great meal. So, all the different flavors, I love them.
[00:05:57] Bob: They might be the perfect food, I have to say. A big fan of pierogis.
[00:06:00] Pierogi: Not for my waistline though.
[00:06:02] Bob: There is a lot of online criminals. It's a very big universe, so Pierogi usually focuses on one kind of crime.
[00:06:10] Pierogi: Typically the scammers that I'm going after now are um, some of these call center-based scammers that are working overseas, because there's just such an influx of phone calls that we're getting from folks, unwanted phone calls, not just telemarketing, but people trying to scam us and pretend to be law enforcement agencies, or, you know, Amazon or Microsoft, you name it. And they're, they're connecting to our computers, they're connecting to our phones, and they're destroying our lives.
[00:06:37] Bob: So he takes the phone calls and engages with the criminals. And for his stunts, he employs a whole cast of characters.
[00:06:45] Pierogi: Sometimes I just call as myself. And it's really funny, because I even say I'm Pierogi. Some of them know me, and they watch the channel and sometimes I talk like this. I have a little bit of a southern accent, and I'm, you know, I have a character named Roy Miller, and he kind of got a little bit of an accent here. So I'll do that because again, paying homage to my family from being from the South, but then you've got like a, a couple of variations. So I have one, so my Vivian Rogers is my grandmother, and she can be really raspy. What I'm trying to accomplish with her voice is like a raspiness, but then also I can take that, and I can speak softer. So I had another character named Mary Swanson, and she was Vivian's voice, but I started to speak softer because the scammers would, they would recognize Vivian, so I'll go through these voices, so "Hey, Honey, this is Vivian Rogers, with Scammer Payback. (giggle) So I would talk like this and then when the scammers would start to realize who I was... then I would talk a little bit softer and a little bit lighter, and I would say sorry all the time." So again, just, it's the same voice, but I would take a couple of variations to it just to make it sound a little bit different, maybe it sounds different to you all, maybe it doesn't, I don't know, but to the scammers it's worked. And then I've got Wilson Carter who's my grandpa, and I used to, my, my grandfather, he talked like this. So my grandfather that lived in Minnesota, he, he uh, he had that voice, and I would try to talk like this all the time. And that's kind of how my Dad talks sometimes too, so I would do that with no voice changer, but the scammers didn't really like it, so then I was like, okay, I'm going to modulate my voice a little bit and see if the scammers go for it, and they just, they always go for this voice. So this is my other grandpa voice that I have. "And his name is Wilson Carter, and Wilson Carter is a public speaker and uh kind of like a Tony Robbins or a Gary Vee and I like to hold conferences and take all your money and tell the scammers about it." So I do that one. The scammers seem to, the scammers seem to love Wilson Carter and uh he just, he cracks jokes and talks about how rich he is and that kind of stuff, and the scammers go for it, and they know he has a lot of money, and they'll say, like, "You're my," you know, "You're like my dad. You remind me of my dad." So then you have that kind of father/son dynamic.
[00:09:08] Bob: It sounds funny, and it is entertaining, but Pierogi takes his work very seriously. As you can hear, he focus-groups the characters to make sure they're effective. Vivian is one of the more critical characters. In this clip, you can hear how Pierogi keeps distracting the criminal long enough to do serious damage to his operation.
[00:09:30] Scammer: Where are you right now?
[00:09:32] Pierogi: I'm at the mall right now.
[00:09:34] Scammer: Go purchase one gift card at Best Buy
[00:09:36] Pierogi: I've already purchased 10 for my grandson. I'm about to get in the car to go home.
[00:09:41] One car ride later.
[00:09:43] Scammer: So your computer is locked then. Tell me what you want to do.
[00:09:46] Pierogi: My computer's locked? No it's not.
[00:09:49] Scammer: Yes. It's locked.
[00:09:52] Pierogi: No it's not.
[00:09:54] Scammer: It's locked.
[00:09:55] Pierogi: My computer’s not locked.
[00:09:58] Scammer: It's locked. You need to put the password and check.
[00:10:02] Pierogi: Are you sure?
[00:10:03] Scammer: Yes, I am 100% sure. Now put your password...
[00:10:08] Pierogi: My password?
[00:10:09] Scammer:...in your computer.
[00:10:09] Pierogi: It says incorrect.
[00:10:13] Scammer: Hmm, your password is changed.
[00:10:17] Pierogi: What?
[00:10:18] Scammer: (chuckles)
[00:10:19] Pierogi: What did you do?
[00:10:20] Scammer: You were trying to make a fool of me!
[00:10:22] Pierogi: What did you do?
[00:10:24] Scammer: I changed the password.
[00:10:26] Pierogi: What?
[00:10:26] Scammer: Now tell me, what would you do?
[00:10:28] Pierogi: What?
[00:10:28] Scammer: Now give me one best, now give me a gift card number of the Best Buy.
[00:10:33] Pierogi: How about you go on your computer. How about you go on your computer and see that I deleted all the files on your computer.
[00:10:40] Scammer: You cannot do that. You do not have access to my computer.
[00:10:43] Pierogi: How about you go look at your C drive and see there's no files there anymore.
[00:10:47] Scammer: Are you kidding me?
[00:10:48] Pierogi: No.
[00:10:50] Scammer: Who are you?
[00:10:51] Pierogi: Who are you to be trying to scam out of a bunch of money?
[00:10:55] Scammer: Who are you?
[00:10:56] Pierogi: I'm a grandmother.
[00:10:57] Scammer: So what are you trying to do with me?
[00:11:00] Pierogi: Why did you just try to get me to give you $5,000 and lock me out of my computer when you don't have any files on your computer anymore. How does that feel to have zero files on your C drive?
[00:11:18] Pierogi: You really need to get a different job, son.
[00:11:22] Scammer: What you, what are you...
[00:11:24] Pierogi: You need to get a better job. I'm just telling you because what you're doing is very criminal.
END OF CLIP
[00:11:29] Bob: Despite the drama, Vivian tries to give helpful advice to the criminal telling him to get another job. So why did Pierogi pick the name Vivian, and where does she get those kind of motherly instincts?
[00:11:43] Pierogi: They’re, well the character of Vivian is I'm paying homage to uh, my family, to my mom and my um, my grandmother on my mom's side. So my mom and her mom. And I took a lot of different nuances from kind of how they would react to somebody like this. Both of them are passed away, and so, and they were just, they were tough, you know, tough cookies, and they were funny and had sense of humor, maybe had a little too much wine or whiskey every once in a while, and you know, a little loose lipped and stuff like that, but just really fun characters that you wanted to kind of be around and, and hang out with. And a lot of the audience that watches my videos, they can relate to that like just, they're like, oh my gosh, I, some people email me to say, "Vivian is my mom. Vivian is my grandmother. Oh my gosh, it's so cool when I hear all these things and she reminds me of my..." you know, mom or grandmother, or aunt, or whatever, so it's really neat.
[00:12:37] Bob: How does Pierogi pull off all those voices? Sometimes with the help of technology.
[00:12:43] Pierogi: From the voice standpoint, there is a number of different ways you can modify your voice. There's software and there's hardware. I actually use a hardware device. "And I can make myself sound like I'm 81 years old." And I can turn that on and turn it off whenever I want to, and um, it really, you know, you can put different effects on it and make it sound as if you’re, you know, on a speaker phone. Like I have this one where it sounds like I'm kind of a grandma talking on a speaker phone, so it makes it a little bit difficult for the scammers to hear and understand some of the stuff that I'm saying.
[00:13:15] Bob: That altered voices are just part of Pierogi's game plan. And really, they're just a distraction. What Pierogi really wants is to keep the criminal's attention long enough so he can do real damage to the criminal operation.
[00:13:27] Pierogi: Some of the times too, the scammers will essentially allow us to see their computers, they'll give us a--, approval to see their computer. Sometimes they don't understand that they are, but they do. And we get information like their location, we get pictures, and, and photos and videos from them, and then, you know, we go and try to find their social media accounts. And it's, it's typically pretty easy to find their social media, so it's, it's also really fun to get that information, and then tell the scammer that you have that information. And they really freak out which is, is nice. But the cool thing is, we're doing all this live. So this isn't even an investigation that's taking six months. A lot of these times we're actually accessing this information in real time with thousands of people watching and then telling the scammer that hey, we know your name, we know your location, we have your photos right here, and you know, we've got a video, a scammer exposed video that's almost at 10 million views on YouTube and they're like, well tell us who we are then if you, you know, they kind of challenge you, and then I'm like, well your wall is this color, and there's six of you in there. And then all of a sudden, they hang up 'cause they know they've been had, so.
[00:14:37] Bob: It's impossible to overstate how much effort Pierogi has put into perfecting his techniques. Most of the criminals he talks with are based in India working in call centers there, so he's gone to the trouble to learn how to speak to the criminals in their language, and I don't mean that metaphorically.
[00:14:54] Pierogi: Honey, please.
[00:14:55] Scammer: It’s got a lot of (inaudible).
[00:14:54] Pierogi: Honey, please, don't, honey please just please, please don’t be rude because my (Hindi) okay? I'm tired. All right?
[00:15:08] Scammer: Okay, (Hindi)
[00:15:10] Pierogi: Okay (Hindi) I just need to...
[00:15:14] Scammer: (Hindi)
[00:15:16] Pierogi: Yes. Okay, you're scaring me, please. Can I please have my money back?
END OF CLIP
[00:15:20] Bob: So one of the things that surprised me about your videos are, do you actually speak Hindi, or you just know a few phrases or...
[00:15:27] Pierogi: Yeah, I'm, so I really enjoy languages. When I was in high school, I became pretty fluent in Spanish, and I really enjoyed that language. I like the culture, the cultural aspect of it and like understanding why certain words are here and there and things like that, so I even studied in Spain for a little while as well, so I, I enjoy that and I did some, a lot of translator work for like for churches and stuff like that too in my, in my past. And for mission trips and things like that, but when my, my wife, I had to learn Russian through getting married to her because I didn't want the family to talk smack about me. So I was like, I gotta learn Russian now. So I started to learn Russian, and I just it, it help me get engrained in the culture and understand and, and things like that. So and to kind of be, become a part of their family. So when, naturally when I got into the scambaiting world, there's been people in the past that will just kind of curse at the scammers, and I, I typically want to just know what they're saying about me. So I took of my, you know, Russian speaking in my brain, and I started getting towards the Hindi, so I'm no, by no means, any proficient professional in Hindi yet, but it's somewhere, it's somewhere that we're going to go towards where I'll be able to just have conversational Hindi with them. And the other thing too that makes it kind of tough is the scammers are in different, they speak different dialects of it as well. So sometimes I might be saying something and they're speaking Punjab or they're speaking Bengali, and I don't understand any of that. So, but we're getting there, so it's going to take some time, but it, sometimes it gets respect from them so that they give me information but and then sometimes it ticks them off when I say certain words like ullu ka pattha which is like a little owl kind of. It's, it's, it's not really a curse word, but it's a, it's, it makes them upset when you call them things like that.
[00:17:18] Bob: It's an insult.
[00:17:19] Pierogi: Yeah, insult. Yeah.
[00:17:21] Bob: Let's stop right here and make something very clear. I know you've heard this before, but I really, really mean it. Don't try this at home. I know we're lionizing Pierogi a bit here. It's very, very admirable what he does, but he's got all kinds of special equipment, and special training, and even still, he's taking on a lot of risk doing what he does. It's dangerous. Don't try this at home. Even Pierogi will tell you that bad things can happen.
[00:17:49] Pierogi: You're dealing with online criminals. So this isn't, you know, even though the videos are very interesting and entertaining, and there's a lot of laughs and things like that, you are dealing with criminals, so we never really advise that people go out and do this themselves. Even when you get the calls from these scammers, I still would advise a--, against messing with them, because the first thing they do when they call your real phone number is they put your information into the internet to see what other information is out there, and then they'll add you to other lists. So, if you mess with them, you know, that's my warning. I would not, I would not mess with them. I would stay away from them. Just hang up the phone on them.
[00:18:24] Bob: We don't want to encourage people to freelance this. Um, describe for me a couple of bad things that could happen. Let's say somebody listens to this and they say, I want to be Pierogi. Next time a scammer calls me, I'm going to give them the business. What's the bad things that could happen to them?
[00:18:37] Pierogi: Yeah, um, there, there are a number of different things I would say, but they can look up all your information. Everything is searchable on the internet, so they can take your phone. They're doing reverse phone searches, so they're finding the names of your family, where you're from, and, and then they, what they'll do is they'll use that as a scare tactic. They'll message you back, they'll call you, maybe they'll email you and say, hey, we have information. And that goes into a whole 'nother scam an, an intimidation type thing where they kind of play on your fears. But even on the technical side, some people want to like let them on your computer and all these kinds of things and mess with them. They're, they can lock you out of your computer, they can completely fry your computer if you, if you ticked them off. They, they could do nefarious things, you know, put viruses, malware on there, and you wouldn't even know that it was still there. So maybe you mess with them one day and you thought everything was gone, but they're still there watching you, so then they can watch you logging into your email addresses, your bank accounts, you name it, without you even knowing. So there are a lot of risks.
[00:19:35] Bob: If some of Pierogi's techniques and tactics sound familiar to you Perfect Scam listeners, perhaps that's because you listened to our episode with Jim Browning last year. He's another scam baiter turned YouTube sensation. Perhaps you shouldn't be surprised to learn that Pierogi and Jim Browning even know each other.
[00:19:53] Pierogi: There's another prominent scam baiter in the space that I talk with, and he's watching another call center, and he, he and I email and text back and forth and things like that, and he sent me an, an email of a picture of a scammer's computer, and they're actually watching my previous livestream. And the reason why is because they're going in and they're actually timestamping where I was calling out uh certain bosses and locations and things like that, so that they could go tell their boss. And, and when I say boss, I'm talking about the guys that are the money behind all these operations that never touch the call center. They just make all the money from it. So they're definitely very nervous, we're just doing everything that we can to expose these guys, and again, like I said, we're not the police, we're YouTubers, but uh somebody's got to fight back. So that's, that's what we're doing.
[00:20:40] Bob: Uh, is there any change it was Jim Browning you were talking to?
[00:20:43] Pierogi: Yeah, it was Jim. Yes. Yes.
[00:20:44] Bob: Jim's already, we've done an episode with Jim, so he's a great guy.
[00:20:47] Pierogi: Oh, nice. Yeah, Jim's great. I wish he was in the States. We still haven't met yet, but a really, really good, really good person, and you know, his heart's in the right place. Want... he just wants to expose these guys as well and help as many people. So he and I are kind of, you know, behind the scenes and in front we try to work together as much as possible.
[00:21:06] Bob: The scam world is evolving constantly, so we asked Pierogi what he's seeing on the front lines right now. What are the most common crimes?
[00:21:15] Pierogi: Again, we deal with a very, a varying degree of scams that are out there, but we typically deal with these call centers that do like either a text support scam, so I'll kind of go into that first one. There's text support, there's a refund scam, and then there's things like the Social Security Administration, and that one is a pretty big one that's kind of died down a little bit, but the first one, the, the text support scam started, there were a lot of call centers in India that were doing legitimate technical support, and they were being outsourced by bigger IT companies and organizations. And they were giving legitimate support. And then some of the scammers, many years ago, one day they said, well what if we could just go and do it ourselves, instead of being Microsoft we could say we're a third party to Microsoft. And we could do the support for cheaper. So then they did that, and then from there they said, well what if we could actually create a fake virus that would bring leads to us. So we would have something pop up on someone's computer, and then they would call us thinking that there was a problem and then we would fix it and then we would get paid for it. So that's really where it's a kind of evolved in this tech support space. So my warning here for folks, when you're surfing the web, and maybe you typed in BankofAmerica.com incorrectly, and all of a sudden, your screen is blue and there's all these noises and sounds and everything going on, that's probably the tech support scam. Don't call that number. Microsoft won't do that where they take over your whole screen, but that's what they do is they, they, they pay for ads, they pay for pop-ups, they call them the pop-up scam. They pay for these pop-ups to happen on your computer and then you call them up and pay them $1000 to fix it, but at the end of the day there was really nothing that was wrong with your computer. So it's just a complete scam.
[00:22:58] Bob: And yet, these scams, these stories really are compelling. We know vulnerable consumers are victimized constantly by these criminals. Why are these scams so effective I asked Pierogi. He sees one particular variation often. A criminal claims to have accidentally deposited too much money into the victim's bank account, then begs for the victim to return the money. The pleas get more and more desperate, and the victim, out of a sense of kindness or duty does what the criminals ask.
[00:23:30] Pierogi: They play on your emotion, and most people are very, you know, we want to do well in the world. We don't, we don't want someone to lose their job, we don't want somebody to get into trouble, and we don't want to get in trouble ourselves because you know, we're well-meaning people, so what happens is the scammers then they, they play on your emotions, and they're like, "Ma'am, I have a family," like, "I need you to give my company this money back." So they have you go and either get gift cards or do wire transfers or get cash out and send it in the mail, uh to a, they call them a receiver or a money mule. So it's a crazy process and it goes really, really fast. A lot of the victims I've talked to, they say, "I don't know what I was thinking, but everything goes so fast." They get on your computer so fast, you're worried about some kind of fraudulent activity, then on top of that, you owe somebody $10,000 for instance, and it's just a whirlwind of emotion.
[00:24:20] Bob: And it's a whirlwind of emotion for him, too. There is a lot of human suffering behind all these crimes.
[00:24:27] Pierogi: There's a lot of livestreams that I've done and videos where a lot of tears in my eyes because you hear what these scams have done to people's lives, and there's people who have lost their lives, taken their lives, because of losing everything. It's very, it's, very, very sad, so I kind of set out to expose as many of these scammers as possible because it's one thing to waste the time of the scammers, which I think it has its place there, but also there's other ways how do we cut off when they've actually scammed someone and sent money some--, a victim sent money in the mail, how do we stop that package from going to the scammers? How do we do stuff like that? How do we expose the bosses that are overseas? And uh so we've, we've really tried to do as many things as we could creatively to shine a light on these scams and, and the people that are behind it and bring shame to the people that are behind these scams because, again, I'm not the police, I'm not law enforcement, so I try my very best to either help people from being scammed or expose the ones that are scamming. So, it's really, my mind's really shifted over the years, and I think we've really impacted the space. There's a lot of the scammers like they know it’s, when they find out it's me when I'm talking to them, they, even on the last video, they just said, "You're ruining our job. You're ruining what we're doing." So I think it's making a really big impact.
[00:25:49] Bob: It is making a big impact. So big that sometimes he's able to stop crimes in progress.
[00:25:57] Pierogi: Yeah, it, it's been, I, I can't necessarily divulge all of what I do, but um, you know, we're able to essentially find addresses in the United States where money mules, so other organized crime that are coordinating with the scammers overseas, and they have people that go to places like Airbnbs, or they'll go to a CVS that has a FedEx inside of it, or they'll just got to an abandoned house that they know the address that nobody's living there, and then they'll have people send money to those addresses, they pick them up, and then they leave. So we, we've been able to stop, like I said, almost half a million dollars in the past year from people that are actually sending, sending cash. That's one of the end results for some of these scammers; they get their victims to put cash inside of a uh, inside of a book, and then put inside of a box, and then wrap it up and then send it out. So, uh, we've also done sometimes too where we confront the scammers, the money mules I'll say, so I worked with some other guys and we would actually send them to the locations themselves, and the people would go to the door and knock on it and say, "Hey, you were supposed to be collecting $40,000. What are you doing here?" So, it's really crazy stuff, but it's happening every single, every single day, so as, as many people as I can save, that, that puts a smile on my face.
[00:27:11] Bob: Of course, the criminals get really angry with Pierogi ... most of the time. But believe it or not, sometimes they help him out and tell on rival scam gangs.
[00:27:23] Pierogi: Sometimes we have scammers in certain call centers that don't like other scammers, and they know information on them, so they will reach out to me and then we have also people in India that will reach out to me just because they know of scams already going on, and people behind them and things like that. So...
[00:27:37] Bob: Are you telling me there's no honor among thieves?
[00:27:40] Pierogi: Right, I know, and that's, you know, the, the, what is it? The enemy of an enemy is, is my friend, right. So that, I've kind of become this guy that a lot of the scammers can talk to and come to, and it's, and I don't want it to be misconstrued with this idea that like I'm just friends with all of them or something. But they can come to me with information and a lot of them have, which is really cool, because it's allowed us to expose other call centers which is kind of neat.
[00:28:06] Bob: Having spent hours and hours on the phone with criminals, Pierogi has come to understand their world quite a bit. And it's full of surprises. For one, scamming seems to be a real profession in some places, and some scammers don't really know what they're getting into when they take a job at one of these call centers.
[00:28:27] Bob: One of the things that I saw in a recent video of yours, uh was this idea that many of these criminals have you know, four-year college degrees. Some of them have work experience, and they, they might even think this is a legitimate job, but you need to have a, a college degree to be a scammer in some situations now?
[00:28:44] Pierogi: Yeah, it's uh, we kind of said that tongue in cheek, you know, because when I had, when I had access to the system of the scammer and they, they had this guy's resume, I'm like, goodness gracious, this kid should be out working somewhere legit, and he's got a four-year degree and they're, they're finding people that they call them sales jobs, so you know a sales job in the US, you, you make commissions off of sales and, and you make more money, right, so I, they were finding people that speak really good English, that have experience either in a call center or doing any kind of, you know, work like that where they're speaking a lot of English, and then they bring them in. So they've got really well-spoken folks that know how to get around a computer, maybe have IT experience as well, or any kind of experience around that to be able to navigate these waters, because they're bringing in these, we kind, kind of call them the first level openers. They bring in these guys and gals to connect with a computer and then they pass it over to the really experienced ones that know how to do everything from soup to nuts. So, it's very interesting, but we highlighted in one of our, in one of our videos that in Calcutta specifically, during the pandemic I think they had a 45% unemployment rate in Calcutta. So, you have a lot of folks, a, a lot of millions of people and there's a lot of them that aren't working, and they're trying to find work, so they're trying to find legitimate work. These scammer bosses make it look like it's legit work, and then they sign them to contracts and maybe these people become indebted to them, maybe they have a, you know, they have to pay for rent or something and they pay for it, and then they owe them money back. So they really get stuck in these jobs, and they can't leave. So I'm not saying that that's all of them, but there's a lot of them that are like that, and they just try to get through the day. So it's really, really sad.
[00:30:31] Bob: Yeah, and this idea that maybe they give them some money upfront for, you know, to help them pay for rent that month or something, and then they have to earn it back and they have to earn it back through these criminal activities, that's, that's a, a really um, terrible situation.
[00:30:44] Pierogi: Yeah, it's, it's very sad, but, you know, there's also a lot of scammers that I've talked to, and they know they're talking to me, and they like to brag. They send me, they'll send me pictures of, of sometimes where they've done wire transfers for $42,000 which those guys make about 10%, so everything else goes to the big bosses that are the money guys. But the, the actual scammers themselves make about 10% of whatever they steal from somebody. So when I say make, I'm saying this loosely, you know these, we always have to take a step back. It's not a real job. They're stealing from people, but they're, they, in their eyes, they're making commissions on sales. They call them sales, they call them customers, we look at their little datasheets with everything, and they call them all sales. So...
[00:31:25] Bob: Here, here's the question I'm dying to ask I bet everybody's wondering, okay, some of what you're doing, you know you flat out tell people you're scamming; you should stop. And you're scaring them to some degree. Do you get the sense that any of them you know quit that day after talking to you?
[00:31:43] Pierogi: I, you know, I think that, I don't know if quit is the right word. I think there's, we have one video where it says, would you help a scammer? And actually the guy's become my friend now. And he, I was on the phone with him as a grandpa character, his, his name's Wilson Carter, and the, the scammer had been working there for a couple of days, and I was talking with him, and I had a story that my wife had passed away. And he started to break down crying. And he said, "Sir, I can't do this. This is a lie. This whole thing." I mean it was within maybe two minutes of the phone call, so this wasn't like he'd gone through the whole scam and wasn't getting money and, and changed his mind. This was literally within a couple of minutes of talking to me. And he said, "I can't do this anymore. I don't want to do this. This is a scam. I'll, I'll let you see my computer. I'll show you how everything's going. I, I just, I can't do this. I thought this was a legit job. I needed money, and then I realized it was a sca--, a scam. I can't do it." The cool thing is uh he's had a chance to share his story to the world, and we were a--, we were able to, last year, 'cause he just got married, parent, both his parents passed away; his mom passed away and his father passed away from COVID-19, and he's a young kid, and it's just, it's a sad story. He was, his parents weren't there for his wedding. He'd just married. He's kind of like a little brother to me. So I took him under my wing and, and I've just been catching up with him and kind of understanding what's been going on in his life and we were able to, through the community, the Scammer Payback community, we actually uh paid for his living for an entire year. So we gave him all of the money for him to buy an apartment for the whole year so that he could get back on his feet, and his, his wife is in school to become a teacher, and they're just, you know, they got married. And I was like, hey, also here's a few hundred dollars more. Go take your wife out to dinner. I want to see pictures and video and all that stuff, and it's just been a really cool story. So, that was one of the most incredible moments of my life.
[00:33:40] Bob: I love a good happy ending, but the vast majority of the time Pierogi's interactions ultimately end up with a few angry words, maybe a few threats, and then a click on the other end of the line. It's hard not to wonder, does he ever get scared?
[00:33:55] Pierogi: Sometimes, if I'm, if I'm being honest, but um, you know, it's, you are dealing with people overseas, which it would take a lot for them, or not a lot, but you know, they'd still have to come over here, so I'm not necessarily hitting anyone in the, in the US that are, that are, they're not really the, the scammers that I'm going after aren't really based out of here. But yeah, it's, you know, you kind of think about you're playing this Batman so to speak going against the Joker, in, in another, another country and they're stealing and, and uh yeah, you're dealing with criminals, and so there's seriousness to that. I think about that every single day, but um, it's been a calling of mine, and I've helped bring people together, and the channel's helped a lot of people, and a lot of people tell me that they, it took a lot for them to get through, like all the pandemic stuff and, and lonely, loneliness and not being around people, but they felt, like we have a really, really good community of people, and um, a lot of people have gathered together from all walks of life, all countries, so many different countries around the world, so many different age groups, from 18 to 83. It's been really, really neat to what Scammer Payback uh, has meant to me. So I think about more of the positives than like any of the bad guys trying to get me because I probably would never be able to sleep at night if I've ever, if I've just was thinking about that, so.
[00:35:19] Bob: Speaking of sleeping at night, Pierogi doesn't do much of that because some of these hack-back stunts take hours. Many hours. As we spoke, he told me a story of pretending to be a grandmother and staying on the line using Vivian's voice for five straight hours with a criminal. In fact, there are times that he strings along individual scammers for many months.
[00:35:42] Bob: Meanwhile, you just told me that you stayed in character for five hours once?
[00:35:47] Pierogi: Uh yes, um, that's probably not even the longest I've done, but uh...
[00:35:51] Bob: That sounds exhausting.
[00:35:53] Pierogi: It is. It's uh, it's very draining because you deal with them kind of berating you and, and saying things about, you know, cursing under their breath about you. And, and again, you're pretending to be a victim, so you put yourself in the shoes of a, of an 80-year-old grandmother that is about to wire transfer $100,000 'cause she's afraid she's going to jail or something. So I try to stay in character to again one, waste their time, but two, try to collect information on them and show people how this stuff works, and show them how crazy the scammers will go, and like to what lengths they'll go. So we take them on wild trips. We go to Target, and we've got little sets and scenes set up that shows us inside a Target getting gift cards or going to the bank or driving. We have a Tesla that we drive in and we play music to the scammers and play it really loud so it hurts their ears and you know they, they don't like certain things like that, but I've had some scam bait calls that have gone for six months where I will just continue to build a relationship with a scammer, and when I say build a relationship, they still think I'm a victim, so they think that they're getting a big payout. For instance, I have one scammer, we haven't released this one yet, his name was Alvin, and he was giving me information. I was getting information on other scammers and call centers through him, but he thought he was going to be getting $3 million from me, so we took him on this wild chase for six months. Yeah, just continued on and on. I could call on him, he would pick up. He would have me go try to send money all these different times, and it wasted time, but it also got valuable information to help other people.
[00:37:28] Bob: All this work pays off, especially if you measure the payoff in YouTube views. Scammer Payback is incredibly popular.
[00:37:37] Bob: And in the meantime, you have videos now that get two, two million more views. Did you ever think you'd have that many people watching your work?
[00:37:44] Pierogi: I don't know. I never, sometimes in life when you have something that you just need to do, you just kind of go and do it, I think, and like I remember telling my wife that I was going to do this, and she's my number one supporter. She is amazing. She's just like, all right, go do it. So I started waking up at 4 in the morning and calling these guys before I worked. And then I would call these guys after I worked. And the, the amount, you know, I think we've almost at, we're almost at 200 million views on the channel itself over the, the past three years, and to have reached that many people was it's amazing, it's, it's weird to put a number like that big and livestreams to have all these people, all these livestreams and, and certain videos. One video is almost at 20 million views. It's, it's um, very humbling because I think people want to watch this content and they want to learn, and they also want to know that somebody's fighting against the scammers and going after them. So, and not necessarily just making a joke out of it, but the seriousness, I think people are drawn to that as well.
[00:38:47] Bob: I think everybody admires what you do and what Jim Browning does and every, everybody else like you. And so let me say thank you for all of the people who admire that. I, I wonder when you put your head on your pillow at night though, do, do you think, do you think you're winning the battle?
[00:39:05] Pierogi: Some days yes, some days no. (chuckle) And that's what, I don't know, it doesn't necessarily scare me. It makes me sad, I think, because I didn't even talk with you about a lot of other scams that are out there. All these crypto get-rich-quick schemes and things like that. There's people in the romance world, you know, trying to find someone to be with that they just want someone to love them, and they're giving money away hand over fist. I have so many people I'm talking to that have emailed me like my, my mother won't even listen to us. She's just giving someone $10,000 a month and now she's, all of her disability check or her Social Security is, is going to this person that we know it's a scam. So I think that I'm making a dent where I can, and I think I really tick off the scammers and we're exposing a lot, and we're helping save some victims, but I do fear that um, it, that I'm not, I am not doing enough or enough isn't being done because it's a numbers game at some point, and there's a heck of a lot more scammers that are out there than,than me or Jim Browning can handle. Um, and that's the part that makes it sad because it's a matter of time until they find the, the next person that's out there, and that's susceptible to a scam.
[00:40:21] Bob: Here's a really important insight Pierogi shared with me about online criminals. When they begin the day looking for victims, when they call someone like you, it's critical to understand they often have a really big head start in their scam story. They often already know a whole lot about you. And that can make their story sound much more believable.
[00:40:43] Pierogi: Yeah, so essentially how that works, like I was saying earlier, if somebody called your cell phone, the first, or the scammer will... the scammer calls your cell phone and your, whatever your area code is, they are putting that reverse, they're, that's the first thing they're doing is they're reverse phone searching the number. And a couple of things; they can see if it's a landline, they can see if maybe the mobile carrier, they can see, maybe they're, they can find your address, they can find your, your name, your last name, your spouse's name, your children's name, your grandparents' name. They can find a bunch of different things. So it just gives them, their, their goal is to get as much information as possible on the current person to show the validity of who they are, even though they're not valid, right. They're, they want to show like, "Oh, we already knew that you're in Miami." So like the one on that one, he just looked up my fake phone number, and that one number is in Miami, so I'm like, "Oh yeah," you know, "How did you know?" And he's like, "Well, Ma'am, we've got all of your information." So...
[00:41:42] Bob: That's really persuasive it seems to me though.
[00:41:45] Pierogi: It is. It um, it's, there's a, and this is the other part where again, the social engineering, and when I talk about social, social engineering, just kind of the manipulation of the mind that these scammers have been taught to do, we kind of do it back to them, but they do it to their victims, so especially even like the ones that pretend to be the Social Security Administration. They say, well they, they get you on your heels and say, "Well give us your," you know, "we're from the, the Social Security Administration, give us your Social, give us your address, give us your name," you know, "give us all your phone numbers. Tell us how much is in your bank account." They really work on, if they have some kind of information that you can valid--, like, okay, if, if somebody called me and they just knew my number that's one thing, but if they knew what my name was, I'd be like, okay, they probably just looked me up in the system. That's, that's one of the nuances that they do. They put you on hold, they look you up in the system, and they're just kind of sitting there twiddling their thumbs, but you don't know. Just like if you called legitimate Amazon support, and you'd say, "Hey, here's my information." They're like, "Yeah, we've got it here in the system." So they do a really good job of that, that mental manipulation that goes on, and, and what it does is it builds trust, the, the scammers want to build trust with their, with their victims as quickly as possible so that they could keep them on the phone and get closer to that scam. So the more trust they can build, the more rapport they can build, then the easier the scam is for them.
[00:43:06] Bob: And, and in some cases, they're working off a database uh of, of prior victims, right? So they, they know even more than just what you could google quickly, right.
[00:43:14] Pierogi: Correct. They work off of, so typically it would go from like the tech support scam and then they would buy a list of people that have been scammed before, and then they would call off of that list.
[00:43:25] Bob: And all those big data breaches you sometimes hear about in the news and other data thefts that you never hear about; well they help scammers a lot too.
[00:43:34] Pierogi: Like I said, in talking with the scam call center boss that sets up call centers for people, and they are actually, they have employees that work at some of the banks, and that extract data from the banks. And so if... think about somebody calling you up and saying, "Hey, I'm from your bank, and I know your routing number, I know your checking account number, I know what's in your savings and checking account," and I'm not trying to scare people, but this is the reality of what happens. What, if somebody called me up and said all that information, that they are with my bank, then I'd be like, wow, that's, that might be true. So, the number one thing he told me, he said, "If we have really good information, we can make, we can get the…" he, he called it the sale. "We can get a bunch of sales every single day if you have good information." So these scammers are getting better information on people. There's so much information that's collected out there, and then the sad thing is we have people in, you know, whether it's the US or UK or Australia, because scammers target a bunch of different countries, but that are working at certain companies that are pretty much stealing data and, and selling it out. They're selling us out to these scammers, and that's the really sad part, and that's one of the things I hope to expose in the future are people that are selling us out. And it's really, really sad.
[00:44:48] Bob: So people who are, work at these companies, that have legitimate reason for your data, uh steal it and then sell it to criminals.
[00:44:55] Pierogi: Correct. Correct. It's really sad.
[00:44:58] Bob: Knowing how big an advantage criminals have off their victims, I asked Pierogi to offer advice to Perfect Scam listeners, and I really love one of the suggestions he had to find an accountability partner, maybe a scam busting buddy, or a, well I'll let him explain.
[00:45:17] Pierogi: Yeah, I think I always, um, want to tell people to verify. Like you have to have someone that's trusted in your family or a friend or if you don't have family around or a friend, or somebody that's close that you can trust and like trust with not necessarily your data and you're not like giving them your data, but can you verify... something even sounds a little bit fishy, like take a, take a step back, pause, take a deep breath, take a swig of, of tea or something and be like, okay, this person just hit me with all this information, I've been hacked, or I'm going to go to jail, or I owe somebody a bunch of money, or my grandchild is in jail right now and I need to write a check, like let me call someone and run this by them and verify. Because again, like I said, they use, they use really good information, and they scare the heck out of you, and then they try to get money out of you really quickly. So you've got to have someone in your life that you can verify this information against.
[00:46:11] Bob: You know, I really like that suggestion. It's very straightforward, but I've not heard it before. I wonder if, uh, in my head, I'm coming, trying to come up with a term like a scam buddy or something. You know, just a, a second person, you know, like to get a second opinion on, on we, we have done these studies at AARP about the psychology of scams, and a big part of the crime is to just put someone suddenly into a different emotional state somehow. So um, when you're there, it's very hard to make good choices, so that's um, a def--, I mean do you have a term for that in your head?
[00:46:43] Pierogi: I mean it's kind of like when we were, when we were in elementary school, and we had to hold hands when we were walking in the line kind of a thing. Like or where you’re, you know, you're on the, the road, the whatever the, the school, you’re on the school bus and you've got to hold hands going through the, the zoo or something like that, so that everyone's in, in line together and all that. But it's kind of like a scam buddy, or it's a, almost an accountability partner. And it's like, "Hey look, I'll make sure you don't get scammed, hey you make sure I don’t get scammed. I got this weird email, what does this look like? What do you think? These guys called me, left a voicemail. I'm not going to jail, am I?" And then that person would be like, "Well no, the Social Security Administration's not going to call you and tell you that there's, you know, 20 pounds of cocaine in a, in a Toyota Corolla that was left at the border of Texas." And that's what they tell people. And you get put in this emotional state like you said, and it's, it all becomes a whirlwind and then also the scammers, they, they tell you, they tell you not to get off the phone first, and then secondly, they say don't tell anybody. That's the other part. That's a huge red flag. If someone's telling you not to tell people what's going on, and I like to do that in my calls. I'll say, "Oh hey, I should just tell my husband about this." And they're like, "Oh, no, ma'am, don't, don't say anything to your husband. I'm going to lose my job." So there are a bunch of red flags along the way, but I think having someone that's accountability, maybe that's not the right word, scam buddy, whatever it is, that that’s going to help cut down, I think, on a lot of this.
[00:48:05] Bob: I thanked Pierogi again for what he does, but before we got off the phone there was one more point he really wanted to make to listeners. Advice is good, tips are good, but criminals, we'll they're going to keep trying to find a way around our advice. So keep your guard up. And about those gift cards...
[00:48:23] Pierogi: No, I think, if I, I think this is a, a perfect conversation to have. I, I think that there's not going to be one like silver bullet I guess to tell people so that they don't ever get scammed. And that's again, like I said, that's the thing that kind of makes me nervous at the end of the day when I put my head on the pillow, so just be, be on the lookout. If you have family members or whatever, like if, if you have a bunch of devices, don't trust everything that's hitting those devices. Scammers are really smart and, and good as far as sending you emails that will get straight to your inbox and make it look like all these legitimate companies, and also with the phone, if something sounds weird, hang up and verify with somebody else, but please be safe out there and um, don't send your money to anybody, and don't buy gift cards, please. Don't buy gift cards.
[00:49:10] Bob: Don't buy gift cards. Yes, that's a great way to end this conversation. As we learned in our last episode with TV scam actor, Alexis Conrad, most scams are really just stories, elaborate stories spun by criminals, but at their essence, they're stories with the same ending -- send me money. And more often than not, that ending really is send me money via gift cards. Don't buy gift cards to make payments to anyone ever. They're for gifts, and only the people you know and love.
[00:49:50] 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; Researcher, Haley Nelson; Associate Producer, Annalea Embree; and of course, our Audio Engineer, Julio Gonzalez. 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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The Perfect ScamSM is a project of the AARP Fraud Watch Network, which equips consumers like you with the knowledge to give you power over scams.
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