“I would like to claim I was that cautious, but in the moment I was not.”
Six months ago, Alex Goldman, co-host of the Reply All podcast, allowed somebody he knew to be a scammer take remote control of his computer. I had just asked him if the computer he provided access to was a clean test laptop, devoid of his personal data. Nope, it was his daily driver. Of course, he did it for a story for the podcast, which is available to download today.
The scammer in question was running a grift that tried convincing people their iCloud accounts had been hacked, and the only solution was to pay $400 in tech support. But he didn’t know any of that yet. He only knew that he had received a robocall from a random 800 number and wanted to find out who was behind that particular scam.
When he spoke to one of the representatives before he granted access to his computer, Goldman says that he straight up asked if it was a scam, and the person on the other line paused and then said “We are anonymous. We are legion. Expect us.”
“I was laughing,” Goldman says. “My co-worker in the studio was petrified.”
Reply All has established itself as one of the best podcasts about the culture of the internet because of PJ Vogt and Goldman’s obsession with running the mystifying and weird happenings of the internet to ground. Sometimes that means explaining strange memes to people who aren’t obsessively refreshing Twitter every five minutes and other times it means examining the strange world of breast milk sellers (and scammers) online.
The best of Reply All’s episodes do something more than just explain memes, though. They reveal the surprising ways seemingly mundane internet things have outsized effects — like when an ad for finding stuff lost in cabs revealed a racket that mixed old-style hucksterism with new tools that gamed Google’s search and ad algorithms.
This week’s episode is one of those episodes. Goldman took that initial call and then made many more into the call center, pushing past the script to try to get the employees of the company (with a name so apt I dare not spoil it here) to talk about their real lives in India. Forgive the heavy-handed pun, but there’s a metaphor in all those calls: the spam and garbage most of us try to ignore on the internet, this podcast replies to, literally. Reply All.
On another show, this story would become an investigation into the scope of telemarketing scams and their victims. Goldman reminded me about a 2016 Microsoft study that showed that millennials aged 25–34 are more likely to be victims of a tech scam than older people, for example. But on Reply All, the “target” of the investigation was finding the person running the whole call center operation, not to prosecute him or take him down, but simply to ask something along the lines of “What is the deal here? Why are you doing this? What is your life like?”
The answer to that question required giving access to his computer once again in order to send a message to knock the scammers off their game. And then it required doing something that might have been even more risky. I asked Goldman if that thing (which is revealed at the end of the podcast and continued in part 2 of the show) was a bad idea.
“I’m also a little reckless, it’s safe to say,” he said.