A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Hooptedoodle #170b - Scammers - Thoughts at 3am

Well, I’m now getting daily phone calls from the scammers, so I guess we must be on some priority list or other. Unless something remarkable happens, this should be my last mention of phone scamming – these guys are already a huge drain on everyone’s funds, time and patience, and I’m probably one or two posts past the point of having said quite enough.

However, I do think that anything we can do to maintain awareness is worthwhile. I had a couple of emails in response to the Donkey Scammers posts which described some very tragic instances of people being victimised, and they served to remind me that, while ridiculing the perpetrators may help me to cope at a personal level with the affront offered by their mere existence, it stops some way short of actually making them amusing. I confess I have found this episode quite upsetting, and I am fortunate enough to be pre-equipped with an understanding of how the scam works, how to recognise the calls, and sufficient technical savvy and specific case history to fill in some gaps.

For the moderate sum of £75 I have now ordered a new, replacement, 3-handset phone which will enable us to solve this problem once and for all – it has a sophisticated range of options allowing the user to block selected individual numbers (including the one that just phoned), all international calls and a whole raft of other helpful alternatives, including a facility to accept or reject individual calls, identified by the user’s settings. I will not have to change my phone number (which would have been a catastrophic thing to do, and – since we are ex-directory anyway – would only give us a short relief before we were back on the scammers’ lists; I understand that they buy their lists from staff working for real phone companies; money will always win over security - of which more later).

This new kit will arrive Wednesday; a little set-up effort and we should be well protected. I still feel very uneasy – there is a brooding malevolence out there, somehow. A few days ago, when we put down the phone on a scam call without answering, the caller rang back and left a voice message. He said, “I know you are there, sir – I am going to call you all day until you speak to me”. We played it back a few times – there he is – the enemy – he even thinks this is funny. Creepy. He is, in fact, a creep.

Not a huge deal – we know he’s there, we aren’t going to answer (and he did try another 5 times in quick succession); it is reasonable to assume he can’t spare enough of his premium, dollar-earning time to waste in chasing us, and it would cost a lot of international call-time for him to deprive us of our phone service by staying on the line. We can, in any case, manage without our landline phone for a little while. So what the blazes is he playing at? He knows that we are not going to do business with him, that, apart from accidentally, we are not even going to pick up his call – we can see who and where he is from the caller display. No chance. Is he now prepared to commit some time to just causing a nuisance, trying to intimidate us?

God knows. I sincerely hope that his god knows. It does not help a great deal to know that he and his pals will move on and attempt to cause loss and damage to other innocent souls, but at least by Wednesday night we will be off the hook until someone thinks up a new scam.

That’s what is bothering me most – that is the Theme at Three in the Morning. There is a comedic side – years ago, when we were students, my cousin and I used to tell each other stories (usually in the pub) about the Land of Bong, where things were usually ridiculous extrapolations of what we saw around us in the Land of England.

At one point (mugging must have been a growth industry at the time – or at least was getting a lot of publicity) we explored a situation where mugging became such a successful way of earning a living that everyone abandoned any other form of employment, and became a mugger. That’s right – for a while (at least until 10:30pm one evening in the Rose of Mossley) the entire population of the Land of Bong became muggers – they roamed the city streets, trying in vain to find other muggers who still had watches or cash, breaking each others’ heads and having a generally unrewarding time. [Parallels with a modern economy in which everyone is in a service industry, or is a scammer, and nobody makes, mines or grows anything are interesting, but a digression at this point.]

Imagine, then, if the phone scamming industry is so successful, and is such a colossal currency earner, that eventually no-one in Mumbai or Kolkata does anything else – in particular, the police and security forces have disappeared. They can only prey on outsiders – and they are restricted to outsiders who speak a language they can more or less cope with [if you answer your phone and speak French they will hang up, at present]. Preying on outsiders has some other advantages – it is easier to be contemptuous of people from another culture, easier to be untroubled about the morality of one’s actions. [The term “mug” was a boon to muggers, since it implied that there was something wrong or comically incompetent about the victim, and thus that in some way his fate was partly his own responsibility]. But this is a growth industry – what happens when everyone they can possibly phone is already working in the same industry? When Rajasthan – or the whole world – turns into the Land of Bong?

My cousin and I realised, all those years ago, that a criminal industry only works if there is still a residual non-criminal world to feed off. This isn’t philosophy, just economics. The anarchy implicit in criminal action must not completely wipe out the ordinary, structured world which contains people with watches and cash, or it will starve itself to death. So there is a balance (by some bizarre, unhinged definition) which would seem to limit, for example, scamming activities. The calls have to be rare enough to still find people who haven’t had one before, and who don’t know what you are up to. They must also stop short of the point at which no-one answers the phone any more, or at which the counter-activity of building scam-proof phones becomes so general that it is too labour-intensive to get through to anyone. The bad news is that there is plenty more money to be made and damage to be caused in the short term, but the faint good news is that eventually the scam must become impotent – must become something that isn’t worth carrying on with. The evil in the world will have moved on to something else.

What really troubles me at 3am is a growing suspicion that our growing reliance on technology – especially the internet (of which I am an enormous fan, by the way) – provides such a rich field for the corrupt and the greedy that it may be doomed. One of the odd jobs I was given toward the end of my working career was as head of Technology Security at an insurance company, so I have thought a great deal about this stuff before. The technology itself has moved on since my day, of course, as has our complete reliance on secure internet banking and so on, but human frailty is constant.

Security is very largely an illusion. If you haven’t thought of that before then write it down, and hang it on the freezer. If the rewards for dishonesty are sufficient, you can buy anybody’s integrity. There is a basic principle of auditing which involves division of responsibility – a risky or high-value procedure must be carried out by a number of individuals or departments, independent of each other and with separate reporting and audit lines. Bunkum. It only works up to a point. If the pay-off is high enough, you can place as many of your own (corrupt) people as you want in all the separate positions – it is just a matter of cash. Anyone, whatever you might think, can be bought or overruled if there is enough of a reward.

At 3 o’clock this morning, my estimate was that there is about a 30% chance of a secure, trusted internet still being in use by 2025. I haven’t made any estimates yet for expected use of telephones. That sneering bastard on the answering machine is still out there.

1 comment:

  1. All the best philosophy happens in pubs. Sounds like you were exploring the reductio ad absurdum that proves the logic of Kant's categorical imperative. (Which ironically you can't say when drunk.)
    Interestingly, many years ago some clever philosophers I worked with who also had computer science degrees developed a simulation that proved that equilibrium is not a necessary result. If the number of wolves stays low, they will survive. No social order that starts with even one wolf is ever free of them (free riding just works too well up to a point). On the other hand, if the wolves get out of hand, they can destabilise the system and all the sheeps quickly turn into wolves. Then the the whole structure collapses. Civilisational failure is an option if no action is taken.