Tech Etiquette: How to Talk to Your Scammer

Finally, I got the call

I was excited to get the call from “Windows Tech Support” telling me that my computer had been compromised, or infected, or something.

The call, as most nerds know, is a scam. It’s bad, too. The scammer’s goal is to get access to your computer or your credit card number. Once they do, you’re sunk. As a friend wrote to me, “My sister fell for this scam and lost $20,000 in the process. They threatened her children, told her not to contact the police or FBI.”

I didn’t know that story when I got the call, or I wouldn’t have been so delighted when my turn came. I was just excited because it makes for great social media story-telling if you play things right: How long can you string along the evil scammer before they hang up on you? I wanted to get in on the game.

But on the spur of the moment, I decided to take a different tack: I would see if I could make a human connection to the scammer, and convince them to mend their ways, and pursue a righteous life of honest, non-scammy employment. Rafe the preacher! I was going to change a life. Good for me.

It didn’t work. Of course it didn’t work.

I told the person on the other end of the line that what she was doing was wrong. “Why do you say that?” she said. “I am trying to help you!”

No, you’re not, I told her. Listen, I said, I know you need a job. Everyone needs a job. But please try to find one that doesn’t hurt people.

“I don’t need your help, a**hole!” she yelled, in a musical Indian accent. Then she hung up.

And there went my shot to put a dent in the global crime ring of the Windows Tech Support scam.

This calls for a decision matrix

So what is the correct way to speak to a phone scammer? Should you bother speaking to them at all? Most of my friends try to string them along, or trick them in some way, in order to waste their time. A few of them, and also my mother, who has a highly accurate moral compass, say the right thing to do is say, “Shame on you.” Except it won’t make a difference.

You can find multiple stories of people engaging with the Windows scammers, and also with the Nigerian money laundering scammers, to varying degrees of success and hilarity. But do any of these efforts make any difference?

I want to believe that there’s a formula to scammer engagement that can be a net positive to the world. I suppose that if the funny calls get into circulation, they can serve as education for people who might otherwise fall for the scam. But I think the most likely impact on the scam industry is nil.

Thus this strategy: Hang up fast, and get your time back. While I want to believe that I can reach the crime bosses who run these scams through their foot soldiers, I don’t think they’re set up with that kind of a customer-service feedback loop. And we do not owe any favors to the people making these calls. They know what they’re doing.