Avoid Scammers by Learning How Their Scams Operate
Scammers have learned to use systems like shipping, rental cars, and rental homes against us. And they’re really good at staying under the radar. They also know a lot of psychological tricks to manipulate us and use our own brains to get us caught in their traps. In order to avoid scammers and stay safe, it’s important to know how the scams operate and what steps you can take to spot them.
See Scambaiting with Pierogi for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.
Pierogi is a scambaiter – someone who interacts with scammers in order to trick them, waste their time, and learn what they’re doing so the rest of us can avoid them and law enforcement can take them down. He protects the innocent and vulnerable from scammers through his YouTube channel Scammer Payback. In addition to exposing criminals, he helps victims with his technology and cybersecurity knowledge.
Helping People Avoid Scammers
Helping people has always been Pierogi’s driving goal. Even when he was fresh out of college and doing IT support, he was happiest when he could be the guy who fixes the problem and helps people. After leaving IT support, he did some work in infrastructure, then moved into security because he found the topic interesting.
I learned a lot around the idea that you can’t keep up with this [cybersecurity]. It’s really a matter of time.Pierogi
He learned the fundamentals of how to secure companies and the implications if they weren’t secure. He also got the opportunity to talk to government officials and other people solving real-world challenges. Through this work, he picked up a lot of valuable information.
Eventually, he saw a few scambaiting videos and found what scammers were doing interesting. He’d heard of scams and gotten a few robocalls before. But for the most part, he’d managed to avoid scammers. But these scambaiters dove into the details of how the scam worked, what goes on in a scammer’s mind, and how the whole process is a business. He decided to fire up his computer and start talking to these guys. Since then, he has left the security industry and focuses on trying to protect people from scammers.
Pierogi keeps hearing stories from people who’ve been caught in scams, and it continues to give him purpose. There’s a lot of pain – the costs of scams aren’t just financial, but also involve a lot of emotional distress. His goal is to protect people. He doesn’t just want to take down scammers. He also wants to make sure ordinary people can avoid scammers and stay safe.
Pierogi has done videos where he confronts scammers and the “money mules” collecting packages and helping the scammers move money around. The scammers are using systems that we’ve built for legitimate reasons to do their scamming. They use shipping companies, rental companies, even startups. They create multiple burner phones. And they have an elaborate system to take money from victims and turn it into profit.
The scammers are using our systems against us. They’re using our shipping. … They’re using AirBNB. They’re even using our startup companies.Pierogi
Pierogi recently did a collaboration with other scambaiters Jim Browning and Mark Rober, who is best known for “glitter bombing” scammers. Mark was able to get access to a lot of scammer packages and create fake ones. Through their collaboration, they sent a variety of fake packages, including glitter bombs, through the scammers’ money laundring network. It was a four-month project that involved a lot of phone calls and a lot of work. But in the end, one person was actually arrested. Pierogi thinks this may be the first arrest in the United States that happened because of scambaiting.
From this project, he learned a lot about the money laundering process. Now he’s not just interested in helping people avoid scammers and protecting people from scam calls, but about how money laundering is going on right under our noses.
Pierogi’s Craziest Experiences with Scammers
Throughout his scambaiting experience, Pierogi has had some interesting interactions with scammers. They’ve ranged from ridiculous to sad, but his craziest one is the time he got married to a scammer.
When scambaiting, he often uses a voice changer to pretend to be a grandmother. Scammers have proposed to his grandmother character many times. But once, they actually went through with it. He went on a website and had the scammer read out the whole “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today” speech. He went line by line, and they did vows. It was very cringy. The scammer kept saying things like “You’re my bride, I want to kiss you,” and making kissing noises. Meanwhile, Pierogi was streaming this for thousands of people. At some point, it was just too much. He didn’t expect it to actually get that far, but it was funny.
Another scammer wrote out a will for this grandmother character. He claimed to have all this money, and the scammer wrote up a will where the “kids” wouldn’t get any money but would have to participate in a Hunger Games-style competition to get one of the cars or houses.
Learning the Language
Pierogi has been learning Hindi because he thinks that immersing himself into the culture and learning the language they speak can help with information gathering. India is a very big country, and different scammers are often in different areas. But Pierogi is learning to hear different cues, even in just the way they speak, that can tell him a lot.
He’s had a lot of phone calls where he starts speaking Hindi to them – often something like “Gussa kyu khar rahe ho” (“Why are you getting so angry?”) or “Dhanyavaad” (“Thank you”). Many of them freak out when they realize the person they’re talking to can speak their language. He doesn’t abuse or curse at them, just proves he knows their language.
If they ask how he knows Hindi, he will often say, “Well, I know exactly where you’re based because of how you’re speaking the language,” and start throwing out landmarks that may be near them. Some of them instead pretend like they don’t speak Hindi and are actually from the US. And he released a video recently where one scammer completely flipped his lid and became abusive.
Personally, Pierogi doesn’t get scared of them. But half the time he ends up in tears on his streams because it means so much to him. He can often hear victims in the background, or hear the scammers laughing about the victim or celebrating like they just closed a big deal when they successfully steal from someone. It makes him feel very helpless since he can’t do anything about it at the time.
The Saddest Interaction with a Scammer
Early in his scambaiting career, Pierogi encountered a scammer who went by the name Jerry. Jerry tried to steal a bunch of money from him. To help with the scam, he had a victim he called his “secretary.” He had her call Pierogi, and her voice was trembling through the conversation. It was the saddest thing he’d ever encountered.
She told him that she almost got scammed out of a million dollars, but Jerry helped her get the money back. Pierogi asked if she was okay and if she knew this was a scam. She assured him that it wasn’t a scam. Later, he emailed and texted her asking her to please tell him if she was in trouble because he wanted to help her. She said she wasn’t in trouble.
The scary thing about it is the manipulation that they put on their victims.Pierogi
Her voice was trembling when she talked to Pierogi. There was definitely some element of manipulation or even extortion going on. If she didn’t help Jerry the scammer, she would probably lose everything. Scammers often turn their victims into money mules so they end up helping the scammer scam other people. It’s extortion on top of fraud, and it’s horrible.
How Scams Work
We have to think about scamming as a business. They call their victims “customers,” train their “employees” on the phones, give them scripts, and have a system. They hire people to work in call centers and beat into their minds that these are customers and they’re helping them. Some of these scammers actually believe they work for Amazon or whatever company the scam is pretending to be from and that they’re really helping people.
There’s a really low barrier to entry to set up these scams. It’s fairly easy and inexpensive to hire people to work at a call center. You can give them cheap computers and use free or pirated software. The phone systems are virtual, and software like robodialers can dial and connect the calls for them.
From there, the front-line scammer goes off a script. Their main goal is to connect to the victim’s computer. They claim to be from a legitimate company – Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, PayPal, or anyone else. A common story is a refund scam. They call you saying that someone made a high-dollar purchase on your account and it seems suspicious. Of course you want to cancel the transaction and get a refund. By being personable and convincing, knowing the script, and keeping the victim on the hook with a fake story, they trick the victim into letting them connect to their computer. Then they pass the victim on to the second-tier scammers.
The Second Tier of Scammers
The second line are the more senior scammers. They know what they’re doing and they’re proficient with computers. Now that the victim has given access to their computer, the second tier are the ones who will actually steal the money.
A lot of times, scambaiters want to depict [scammers] as … goofy people on the phone who don’t know what they’re doing. But they’re pretty well-trained. They do know what they’re doing.Pierogi
In the scambaiting community, there is a temptation to portray scammers as people who don’t know much and aren’t very smart. That can give the idea that it’s easy to avoid scammers. But Pierogi gives these second-tier scammers a lot of credit. They’re trained and they’re smart. They know how to work through a bank account and trick you into giving them thousands of dollars.
How they Get Your Money
The most common way the scam works is by manipulating your bank balances based on how much you have. Say you have $5,000 in your checking account and $12,000 in savings. According to the story they told you, they owe you a $1,000 refund. The second-tier scammer will add a zero onto the amount of the refund and move that amount from your savings account to your checking account. Then they manipulate your screen so it looks like that $10,000 that just landed in your checking account was from Amazon, Microsoft, or whoever, not from your savings.
At that point, the emotional manipulation comes in. They claim you added an extra zero and so got refunded way too much. Put yourself in the shoes of a grandmother who’s not great at computers – this is a recipe for disaster. The scammer tries to get you to give them the “excess refund” back. Usually they ask for gift cards. But sometimes they ask for you to wire money or even put cash in a package and mail it to someone who will launder the money.
If you realize it’s a scam at this point, you may think you can avoid scammers tricking you out of your money. But they have access to your computer. They put a mechanism in to lock you out. If you realize it’s a scam, they don’t mind. It’s now become a ransomware situation. You still have to pay them or you won’t be able to access your computer again. (Pierogi’s tip: If this happens to you, try 123456 as the password to unlock your computer. He’s had this happen to him several times, and they use 123456 as the password a lot.)
Emotional Manipulation makes it Hard to Avoid Scammers
These scammers know where to tighten the screws on people emotionally.Pierogi
Part of what makes these scams so successful – and why it’s so hard to avoid scammers’ tricks – is the emotional manipulation element. There’s a report of a student who lost $30,000 to a scammer pretending to be from the Social Security Administration. The scammer claimed their social security number had been used in money laundering, and they got scared.
Pierogi himself has gotten a lot of harassing text messages from scammers. Sometimes when you don’t give them the money, they will move to harassment. They will say they’re outside your house, or that they know everything about you. And in cases, this can be true. If they have your phone number, they can use a people search website, property records, or even Google search results to find out your name, address, employer, family members’ names, or more. “Pierogi” is obviously a pseudonym, but Pierogi has had scammers call him by his real name. That’s one of the scary things that he tries to highlight in his videos – scammers know more than you think.
These scammers know a bunch. They know your husband, your wife, your kids, your parents. They know everything, and that … makes it scary.Pierogi
Avoid Scammers by Spotting Common Scams
The refund scam mentioned earlier is a common scam, but there are others. Another common one is the fake arrest scam. The scammers call people and claim that their child or grandchild is in jail and needs money to get bailed out. Another common type is social security scams. Many people think that it’s easy to avoid scammers pretending to be the Social Security Administration if you’re not getting social security income. But they have stories for everyone. A common one is that your social security number was used for fraud or someone stole your identity. The goal is to get you scared so you don’t think too hard about it.
Pierogi gets a lot of voicemails claiming that there was fraudulent activity on a variety of accounts. He also gets a lot of voicemails claiming that there is a lawsuit against him and he needs to call back immediately. That one tends to get people pretty nervous. Some have even said things like, “If you’re at work, you need to get home immediately.” The scammers are so confident that they think they can bully people.
A common thing they do in multiple types of scams is ask for your ID. They want a photo of your ID somehow – whether you scan it and email it to them or snap a photo with your phone and text it. That’s a big red flag. Don’t send photos of your passport, driver’s license, social security card, or any kind of ID to anyone claiming to be official. Think about the DMV – you’re sitting there for hours to show original documents. That’s how the government works. They won’t accept your ID through text or email.
You’re not going to get a texting relationship with the government with some random phone number.Pierogi
Scammers Coach Their Victims
Scammers coach their victims on what to do and what to say to dodge the protections put in place to help people avoid scammers. There’s a mental and emotional aspect to it. Stores like Target and Walmart are getting better at limiting people’s ability to buy gift cards and questioning them about it. Banks are generally good about questioning suspicious money movement.
Scammers know there’s going to be pushback, so they coach their victims. The cashier is going to ask why you’re buying $3,000 worth of iTunes gift cards, and the scammer will tell you to say it’s for personal use or it’s a gift for your grandson. The bank is going to ask why you’re trying to transffer $40,000 to a bank in Thailand, and the scammer will tell you to say it’s because you’re opening a business. And unfortunately, the victims are listening to this coaching. They’re scared. Scammers will often tell victims not to even talk to their spouse – that’s how scary and personal it gets. Especially with scammers pretending to be the government, they claim they’ll know if you tell because they’re watching you.
I think of huge aspect of [scamming] is the mental manipulation the scammers are putting their victims through.Pierogi
Who is Responsible for Helping People Avoid Scammers
Big banks invest in cybersecurity to protect their infrastructure. Pierogi assumes there’s some kind of AI or algorithm watching the accounts and putting up red flags. He is curious how the algorithm decides what is suspicious. In the past, antivirus software just determined whether files were good or bad. But now, hackers can use known good processes to do bad things. It’s now more about behavior and how things and people act.
In the end, it comes down to the question of who’s supposed to be watching for problems and helping people avoid scammers. It it a service you pay for? The credit card companies? Financial institutions? Vendors? Big stores like Target and Walmart? Just us watching out for ourselves? Who has the responsibility?
Major corporations have a budget for cybersecurity. Your grandparents don’t. Someone struggling to put food on the table and pay bills won’t spend the time or money to improve their security. Our ISPs aren’t protecting us on the internet, and our wireless carriers aren’t protecting us from malicious phone calls. Right now, the responsibility for avoiding scammers and staying safe in cyberspace is pretty much on us.
Some wireless carriers are trying to screen out potential scam calls, or at least notify you about it. Some banks and financial institutions are trying to help, and some big box retailers are getting on board. Pierogi thinks that to stop scams, it will take all kinds of companies working together and figuring out how to work with law enforcement. We’ve made some steps forward, but there’s still a lot to be done.
Take These Steps to Avoid Scammers
A lot of people think that if they hear someone say a certain thing or say things a certain way that they would immediately know it’s a scammer. But you can’t make assumptions like that. There are scammers starting to pop up in the United States. You can’t assume it’s easy to avoid scammers because they’re always easy to spot.
We have to take it upon ourselves to have that personal security … we have the responsibility to protect ourselves.Pierogi
We have to be aware. Pierogi calls it healthy paranoia. The internet and technology are great things, but we have the responsibility to protect ourselves. You probably lock the doors of your house at night. Similarly, sometimes we have to “lock” or “put passcodes on” our minds. If someone calls you with something that sounds legitimate, you can trust, but also verify. If you’re a trusting person generally, verify with someone else. We trust big names like Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple with a lot of things, but this becomes an issue when scammers use it against us. When someone gets you on the phone or leaves you a voicemail, use as many sources as you can to find out the truth. Maybe that’s checking your account online. Maybe it’s running it by another person for a second opinion.
Protecting Others Too
If you’re passionate about this, have conversations with other people, too. Your grandmother, mother, siblings, and children need to know about this stuff. Scammers don’t care about age, race, sex, religion, or anything else. Tell your parents or grandparents that if they get a call that sounds fishy or someone wants to talk about technical stuff that you don’t understand, they should call you, your brother, or someone else. Then if they do call, don’t look down on them. Remember, you’re watching out for each other.
Pierogi suspects that part of the reason older people are more suscpetible to scams is because they grew up in a more trusting time. When they were younger, kids could go play outside by themselves and locking doors wasn’t as big of a deal. People seemed more trustworthy, so they’re more quick to trust. If a scammer can come up with a plausible story, they are more open and quicker to trust them.
We sometimes depict scammers as just silly people. But they’re very good at what they do. It’s a business worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and it’s built off getting people to trust them when they really can’t be trusted. We have to protect ourselves and we have to protect otheres. We need to have conversations about these types of scams.
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