Phia helps a listener track down a mythical, vanished video game. Further Reading Play Bunni: How We First Met Chris Griffith’s website Dan Cook’s company, SpryFox
ALEX GOLDMAN: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m Alex Goldman.
PJ VOGT: And I’m PJ Vogt.
PJ: We are in the studio with Phia Bennin.
PHIA BENNIN: Hey guys!
PJ: Hi. What are you doing here?
PHIA: Well okay. So three months ago, I got an email from one of our listeners. And she was writing because she’d lost something on the internet and she really wanted help finding it.
KRIS: Phia, can you hear me?
KRIS: Oh, that’s great.
PHIA: Her name is Kris, she’s 20 years old, and she lives in Serbia.
PHIA: And last year she graduated high school, and she moved to Belgrade to start college.
KRIS: And I’ve kind of been lonely these few months, since I’m not from Belgrade. I’m from a small town called Valjevo. I live alone, and I’m just like removed from all my friends and family.
PHIA: So she’s living alone in this big city. And there are these stretches, like days go by where she doesn’t have a conversation with anyone at all.
PHIA: And so she she started doing the thing you do when you’re lonely– she started reminiscing about times she was really happy.
Specifically these summers she spent in her childhood with her best friend, this girl she was really really close with named Kaça.
KRIS: Who lived like, across the street from me, and I would just climb over my fence, and just go into her yard. And then she like lived in this huge, like, it’s the biggest house I was ever inside of. We used to play inside the house like hide and seek and stuff like that.
PHIA: So this would happen every summer, like when Kris was nine and Kris was 10 and 11. And then, one of those years, during one of those summers, they discovered computer games.
KRIS: She had this old PC, and we would just spend just the entire day just playing Flash games.
PJ: Flash games. Like the cheap, the dumb, cheap games that were free. And had a million ads around them. It was always like shoot a celebrity or play pinball.
PHIA: Right. And there’s this one flash game that Kris remembers playing that she says was the best game that they played. It’s called, “Bunni: How We First Met.”
PJ: Bunni: How We First Met?
PHIA: Yeah, that’s what it’s called. And this is what Kris wants my help with. She desperately wants help finding this game. Let me tell you how she remembers it. It’s a world-building game. Super cute graphics. You’re the bunny king on this island and you hop around the island, popping bubbles and finding ghosts that’ll help you out.
PHIA: But you are trying to gain as many gems and coins as you possibly can, and to do that, you’re enslaving other bunnies.
PHIA: You put them to work either in lumber mills or like mining for gold.
ALEX: This, uh, this… (laughs)
PHIA: And I haven’t mentioned this yet. In the game you’re a bunny, and all you want is to find someone who will love you. But the way you think you can find that is by acquiring lots of money.
KRIS: And you had your girlfriend—or she wasn’t a girlfriend, she was more like a person you were trying to marry.
PHIA: Like Mario and Princess Peach.
KRIS: Not really.
KRIS: She was more like a gold digger.
KRIS: You just–you had to provide for her so she would marry you in the end. Uh, so.
PHIA: Oh, weird! Like you had to earn a certain amount of money in order for her to be your wife.
KRIS: Yes, you need to buy her dress and buy her rings and you need to buy her love.
PHIA: But then, in the middle of the game, this very grown-up, complicated drama starts to unfold, where you meet this other female bunny who you really like. Kris remembers her like a stripper. And for some reason, you know you’re supposed to end up with the gold digger, but you really want to be with the stripper.
PJ: It just sounds like the person who made this game had a lot in their head, you know what I mean? Like they were going through something.
PHIA: Yeah! Right. Right. Kris was totally curious about this. She was like, “What kind of person would make a game like this?” But she also loved it, and she found herself in her apartment in Belgrade really missing that time she played with Kaça playing Bunni: How We First Met.
KRIS: I’m missing that feeling of hanging out with someone who is like, that close to you. That friend who I had at that time doesn’t exist anymore. Like, she grew up, she’s another person.
KRIS: And it’s not fair of me to like, compare her to her like, 12-year-old self. But I’m missing the 12-year-old.
PHIA: She wants to go back to that feeling of just being with a really good friend. So she googles Bunni: How We First Met, finds it, she clicks on the link. It looks it’s loading, and then nothing appears. It’s just, it’s dead. And she goes to a couple of other links on other sites, they’re dead, too. The whole thing’s missing.
KRIS: It was just like, weirded out. I couldn’t understand what was happening,
KRIS: And so I got really frustrated.
PHIA: Kris has spent the last six months, trying to find this game. She’s gone on forums, she’s searched through comments on videos, she’s found this whole community of people who are like, “I’m looking for Bunni: How We First Met too! Do you know where it is?” In all her searching, she hasn’t found the game, she hasn’t found the creator. She hit a wall, and that’s when she came to me.
So this is how I started. Um, let me just show you this thing really quickly.
PHIA: This is a different video game. It’s called Triple Town. And Kris saw this when she was searching, and she noticed like this art, like the cute little characters, the little animals, look so much like the animals in Bunni. Kris wrote the company– no luck. I wrote the company and, for some reason, I get an email back that says “Hey! I wrote Bunni: How We First Met.”
PJ: That’s awesome!
PHIA: I know!
PJ: Did he have a copy of the game for Kris?
PHIA: He said “I can tell you where Bunni is, but it’s complicated. And in order to explain it, I have to tell you the story of how I created Bunni.”
DAN: Can you hear me ok?
PHIA: Oh my gosh, you sound beautiful.
DAN: Oh, wonderful!
PHIA: This is Dan Cook, the creator of Bunni: How We First Met.
PHIA: Where am I talking to you?
DAN: Oh uh, so I’m just uh, out of my home, so uh, I’m in Seattle. [cat meows] Yeah, there’s a cat here who meows at me periodically.
PHIA: Dan is sweet and patient and gentle. Like, talking to Dan is kind of like talking to a kindergarten teacher.
AG: That doesn’t sound like that’s really the, uh, effect that you’d get from playing the game that he designed.
PHIA: Right. I know. But talking to Dan, what really surprised me actually was what the game meant to him. He was trying to express an idea that he’d been thinking a lot about, which was that our culture is so obsessed with money that it poisons our ability to find love.
PHIA: Is there a reason that was on your brain at that time?
DAN: Um. At that point, I had just gotten married and I was thinking about this a lot. Um yeah.
PHIA: I guess I don’t really understand what you were contemplating about relationships at that point.
DAN: Have you ever planned a wedding?
PHIA: No, I don’t want to.
DAN: It is one of the more crass commercial projects that is foisted upon people. The culture– the shallow culture is always present.
PHIA: You know, like weddings where people spend $10,000 on flowers or like diamond rings or even smaller things like having to buy somebody else’s ticket to the movie theater. The idea that all of those things could prove that you actually love another person. Dan was like, “I have a message I have to tell the world, and it’s that that stuff is bullshit.”
PJ: So the way he decides to tell the world that message is like– It doesn’t feel like this game is that. Like that doesn’t feel like the game that Kris fell in love with.
PHIA: I know. Like her game was like strippers, and vodka-drinking foxes, and monsters that you had to explode.
PJ: So what what’d why did he– Was, was he just like, “She was a kid and she just misunderstood?”
PHIA: No. So the thing was that Dan didn’t know how to make video games. He could do the art, but he didn’t know how to code. So, he would just pour like all of his hopes and ideas into a blog that he had.
DAN: And then um, one evening this email comes in. And it is obviously written by someone who is intoxicated.
Dan: Like the– the words are not quite connecting they way words should in a sentence. And uh, he says, “I’m in Australia and I’ve been drinking and I would love to make a game with you.” And um, and I’m like… at this point I’m like you know what? I have nothing to lose by saying yes to pretty much anyone.
PHIA: So, Dan and the Australian, they start to figure out how this’ll work. Dan, he does the art. He sends it over. And the Australian, he’ll code it. Bring it to life.
DAN: And um, sometimes we would not talk for a long time. Months on end, and I would ask him what had happened, and he had just disappeared into the Australian outback to he had a cabin out there. And he sent some pictures, and it wasn’t really a cabin so much as like some wood that was sort of in a structure that might provide shelter. It was- it was- it was a great mystery to me. All that I really knew is that sometimes he would appear online and we would make things together.
PHIA: So I called Dan’s partner
PJ: And you got ahold of him?
PHIA: And I got ahold of him!
PHIA: are you in Melbourne? Are you… or…
ANDRE: I’m in the country. I’m in country New South Wales at the moment. Which is a little town of 30 people. Sort of in the outback.
PHIA: So this is the Australian. He has a name. It’s Andre Spiering. And Andre… he wasn’t on board because of any big ideas about materialism and love. He just thought it’d be fun to make a little game about bunnies.
ANDRE: For me, I don’t think anyone was gonna get any huge deep meaning out of Bunni We First Met. I mean it was an Island with two girls on it who probably weren’t the best females in the world to be on the dating scene. But um… (laugh)
PHIA: So they start building this world, like they create the island, and they design the bunni king. And you know, those little bunnies that Kris thought of as slaves… Those were actually, Dan said just supposed to be worker bunnies. And eventually they get to the main characters of the game. This is where Dan is like mapping out his whole grand vision— and they create two characters. One is this like gold digger who represents all things materialism, and then he makes the other love interest, she’s the soul mate. She’s the cool pirate bunny.
DAN: And then, just as we’re releasing the game… Andre who is a free spirit.
PHIA: Uh huh.
DAN: Says, “I was up late last night and I’ve made the most amazing thing ever.”
DAN: And I’m like “What did you make?” He’s like, “I animated the pirate girl doing a dance.”
PHIA: Why did you put that in the game?
ANDRE: Um… I don’t know. I think I just thought it would be funny to have this stupid bunny doing a strip tease.
PHIA: So this is why Kris remembers a stripper.
PHIA: Okay, so let me just show you what this is.
PJ: Oh no.
PHIA: It’s actually on Youtube. It’s towards the end of the game. You can pay the pirate bunny a boatload of jewels.
PJ: A literal boatload?
PHIA: No just a ton of jewels. And…
PJ: No. It’s like gone to like a pink and purple background. It’s like a close up of the bunny sensually dancing in a bikini
ALEX: With other bunnies behind her… She’s putting on lipstick.
PJ: Oh my god. Close up of her butt, and a closeup of her putting on makeup. And then…
ALEX: She eats a rose? That’s it?
PHIA: That’s it.
ALEX: That’s it? Is that you pay the bunny a bunch of money, and then it wears its underwear and dances?
PJ: What more do you specifically want to see that you didn’t get?
ALEX: I don’t want to see anything!
PHIA: (laughs) You see a close up of her in a G-string. She’s actually deep throating that rose.
ALEX: Ok, ok. I retract everything I said.
PHIA: Here’s what I can say: Dan hated it.
PJ: Well yeah!
ALEX: Yeah. I’d imagine.
PHIA: So, this like unholy marriage between these two guys managed to produce this incredibly bizarre game that just like perfectly captivated Kris’s 12-year-old mind. When they released the game, it was actually an incredible hit. But Dan said the reason why Kris and so many other people can’t find that game today is because of what happened next.
In 2014, the company that was hosting the game online so people could play it, it went under. And with it, went the code for the game. The only person who still had the code was actually Andre. Dan didn’t have a copy. And the timing was terrible.
DAN: Right around that time Andre went on a walkabout. He faded away into the into the Australian outback.
PHIA: Oh wow.
DAN: So he just kind of went away.
PHIA: When he finally did get a message from Andre, it wasn’t optimistic.
DAN: It turned out that source code was for the game was on a hard drive that had been ripped out of the computer and was in some back corner of one of these huts that he lived in.
PHIA. And with that, Andre just like disappears back into the wilderness. Until, six months ago, when Dan got an envelope in the mail.
DAN: There was a thumb drive in there. And on that was the source code. So now I have the source code.
PHIA: You do?
DAN: I do!
PHIA: Here’s the catch: The code was a mess. The game was unplayable. And maybe somebody could get the game to work again, but it would take an insane amount of time and effort.
PHIA: Hi, is this Chris?
CHRIS: This is.
PHIA: So I called up this guy Chris Griffith. He’s an expert on Flash games, worked in Flash for 10 years.
PHIA: So… I guess like the question is would you be interested in/able to repair this game?
CHRIS: Yeah, (laughs) I would say it’s probably either not very much work or a whole lot of work.
PHIA: It turns out it was a whole lot of work. Andre had coded it in like weird, Andre-specific ways. When I checked in with Chris Griffith after a few days, he wrote me back. He said: “The work is like trying to repair a part of a huge tapestry, and pulling on one thread can break other parts of it unexpectedly.” But after a month, he gave me the news: Bunni was back.
PHIA: Hi, Kris! Can you hear me?
KRIS: Hello, hi Phia. Yes, can you hear me?
PHIA: Yes, you sound great.
PHIA: Couple weeks ago, Kris and I jumped back on Skype. This was almost three months after we first talked, and Kris was so excited.
KRIS: Uh. Yeah so you can just send me the…
PHIA: Here we go! Did you get it?
KRIS: Yes (laughs)!
PHIA: So the green looks familiar.
KRIS: Yes, that’s the exactly the same color. Oh my god! [game music plays] Oh my god, I hear it! (reading) “I’m Susanna the ghost, have you been to Bunni Island before?” Oh my god! Oh my god! So, I’m clicking it. Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god! This is like– oh my god! Like this is, I don’t remember the music… the sound.
PHIA: Kris was actually screensharing with me as she was playing the game. And, it was really cool to watch, because she was moving around the island hopping to these different parts, finding connections between islands, and just rediscovering all these places that she and Kaça used to go together.
KRIS: And here’s a bunni house! Look at them. Dumb bunnies. You can eat the fruits so why would you… Oh because there’s not enough foods so when there’s not enough food they cut down fruits. Purchase more woods. Purchase more woods. Oh my god. This is like turning into chaos. [fade]
PJ: If you would like to play Bunni: How We First Met, we will be hosting the game on our website for a little while at least. You can go check it out, for now, at http://replyall.limo/bunni. Go there to play it yourself.
After the break, seals, assassins and late 90s boy bands.
PJ: Welcome back to the show. Okay so, Alex, Phia.
PJ: So the whole time you were talking about Bunni, I was thinking about how like… so like my memory of Flash games is not that they were, like my memory of flash games is that they were all really messed up. Like they were like violent, and weird, and kinda bad. And I remember sort of avoiding them for that reason. And when we were, like when Phia was working on this story, I started to wonder about that… Like did I just play weird Flash games? Was my experience universal? And so I looked into it, and it turns out that the games I was playing were super popular, they were as bad as I remember them, and they all basically came from the mind of this one kid. A kid who grew up 20 minutes from me in a different Philly suburb. This kid’s name is Tom Fulp.
ALEX: Oh he runs Newgrounds!
PJ: How do you know that?
ALEX: When I was like a young punk, I used to hang out with this kid. I can’t even remember his name, but he was the only one of us that had like real job. And it was at Newgrounds.
ALEX: We called him Normal Guy because he was the normal guy. He was like a normal guy compared to the rest of us.
PJ: So Phia, just for the record, Newgrounds was like…
PJ: Not a place where Normal Guy worked. Newgrounds was… Basically in the year like 1999, if you went into any junior high computer lab, some kid would be playing a pop up Flash game that they should not have been playing at school, which they would quickly tab away from. And that game was hosted on Newgrounds, and it was where people would go, and they’d play these games, and like hang out and talk about these games. It was this huge place that had like millions and millions of visitors.
PJ: Yeah. So —
PJ: One two three… Hello?
TOM: Yes, hey.
I called Tom Fulp up. I wanted to know why all of a sudden his games had been so popular, and also like why they’d seemingly disappeared.
PJ: How do you explain what that era was to someone who wasn’t there for it?
TOM: Uh, I’d say there was definitely like a punk rock aspect to it, where it just felt very experimental and very unpredictable. You would literally show up to Newgrounds every day not knowing what to expect, because someone could upload something, and it could also just push boundaries in terms of like the themes that you’ve never seen before, because there was no censorship going on.
PJ: And Flash was the language that made all this possible. Because Flash was simple, it was cheap, and it let you start from a picture. Like if you knew how to draw, you could make an animation, and then with Flash you could take that animation and turn it into a game. And so and so, Tom got excited about a world where it was almost like the dumb cartoons he would’ve drawn in the back of the classroom to crack his friends up, he could put those online and let people play them.
TOM: I guess 1996 was when I was a senior in high school. The first popular web page I made was called Club A Seal. Where you’d just- you’d click on a picture of a seal to club it. You know, it’d just get all bloody.
PJ: I remember Club A Seal! Like I really do.
TOM: And then I made ummm. Then I made Assassin, which kind of became a real cornerstone of the site for those early years. Where I would make games where you assassinate annoying celebrities. So it was the sort of the same thing, where you seen them, and you click on them, and you shoot them, or make their head explode or whatever.
PJ: So who was your first annoying celebrity?
TOM: I know I did like Hansen. And, uh, Bob Saget and Leonardo DiCaprio.
PJ: This is like a very specific era of like, if you were a teen boy, which celebrities were annoying to you.
TOM: Yeah, yeah.
PJ: The reason Newgrounds got so huge is that it wasn’t just Tom’s games. He decided to let strangers submit their Flash games, and then have people vote on their favorites. So Club A Seal, that was Tom’s fault. But then somebody else came up with the idea for Clubby the Seal, which was this game where you disguise yourself as a seal, and then go out, and skin human beings in retaliation. It was really gross. And that was the sort of thing that was happening all the time. You had a bunch of smart weird people who were trying to top each other when it came to creating the darkest most disturbing kinds of games.
TOM: Things that were like super edgy and violent. And things that you couldn’t play on your home video game console, or see on TV.
PJ: Did you have moments where you felt… Cuz you know you were like when you’re that age, you do provocative stuff. And then then later, sometimes you’re like “Ah, I wouldn’t have done that” or whatever. Did you have moments, though, during that time when you had second thoughts about anything you’d made?
TOM: I made the game Pico’s School if you’re familiar with that one
PJ: I’m not familiar with that one, what was that?
TOM: That was, uh. This was… Some things you have to own up to, you can’t escape in life. So it was after Columbine, and I made a game where you–
PJ: Oh no…
TOM: –You kind of rescue the school
TOM: You weren’t the shooter. It was a bunch of goth kids shot up the school and Pico basically saves the day, even though it was still pretty tasteless. It was interesting, because Columbine’s like an interesting thing to me because like you see so many reflections of yourself in that group of kids. Like, you didn’t like– you know, there’s a lot of kids in your school you didn’t like. There was bullies and you felt misunderstood or whatever. I never felt like I wanted to go shoot everybody, but I still… you know Columbine was like an interesting study in, you know, in our generation and what different kids were going through.
PJ: Because what you’re saying is like these were… Because I remember having that feeling too, where the kids who had done this stuff, they’d done something really evil, and a lot of what they cared about and thought about were things that I cared about and thought about…. Like I liked violent video games, I didn’t want to hurt someone in real life, but it was a weird feeling to be like… It was– it was– just a weird feeling that I remember just not knowing what to do with.
TOM: It was interesting made you think about, like, if I’d– like i was already through high school when that happened but it made me think like would I be, would I have gotten suspended from high school for drawing violent stuff and liking KMFDM and whatever? Like would that– would that have– Because I kinda felt like they were cracking down on kids after that.
PJ: Tom took a lot of criticism in the years after Columbine, because what would happen is people would publish school shooting games on Newgrounds, and Tom would very rarely do anything about it. Even if he thought, “I would not have made this game.”
TOM: When people would come to the site, and they’d be edgier than I was… there’s always that side of me that’s like I don’t want to kick them off the site because they’re like me… a lot of people do like reach out… Like lot of people, like when they’re at a real low point, when you’re in a dark place, you really do enjoy dark humor. I feel like a lot of people don’t understand that. Like, some people that don’t get dark humor don’t realize it can be really therapeutic to other people that are having kind of dark feelings and stuff. Just feeling depressed or down or anxious. And um… So like there’d be people who reach out to me who like really considered it life saving like that this existed for them. They just enjoyed the site so much. They were so miserable in the rest of their life, then they would come to Newgrounds and it would be like their happy place. And you just like, you met a lot of people like that over the years and it makes you feel like this is sort of, like… As crazy as it might look to some people, it is like performing a public good in other ways. So it kind of made me feel… you know, yeah like, I like this stuff and there’s other people that like this stuff too, and it’s good that they can have a place instead of just feeling like you know outsiders and outcasts all the time.
PJ: So Tom kept protecting his website from the many people who wanted to shut it down. Until, in 2010, Flash games found an enemy that they could not defeat. One single person who decided that Flash itself is over now.
VOICE 1: Without further ado let’s bring out the Steve I think you all here to see.
VOICE 2: Steve Jobs
PJ: So here is Steve Jobs onstage explaining that the iPhone, the new mobile device that everyone is going to use to access the internet, will not support Flash at all.
STEVE: Umm.. It… different piece of technology kind of go in cycles they have their springs, and summers, and autumns and then they go to the graveyard of technology. And so we try to pick things that are in their springs… And if you choose wisely, you can save yourself an enormous amount of work versus trying to do everything
PJ: Essentially, the party’s over.
TOM: If you talk to anyone who uses Flash, like a lot of people have moved on from flash but they’ve never found someone they’ve loved as much as Flash. Because it was a really unique way that an artist and a programmer could work together in a development software. But yeah, I feel like that’s a shame that it got singled out like that.
PJ: Tom still makes video games, and so do a lot of the other people on Newgrounds. But they don’t make them in Flash anymore, that’s over. As we were getting off the phone, Tom mentioned that he’s actually a dad now, with kids of his own. I asked him if he’d shown them NewGrounds… he said, yeah, but not the dark parts. For now he’s keepings his kids a little sheltered, actually. He hopes they don’t look. He knows they probably will.
PJ: Reply All is hosted by me, PJ Vogt, and Alex Goldman. The show is produced this week by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, Damiano Marchetti, and Austin Mitchell. Our editor is Tim Howard. Our intern is Anna Foley. We were mixed by Kate Bilinski and Haley Shaw. Our theme song is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder.
Special thanks to everybody else who missed Bunni and spoke to Phia, and special thanks to Sherina Ong.
The guy who resurrected Bunni for us is Chris Griffith, his website is classextension.com.
If you want to see other games designed by Dan Cook, you can check out Spry Fox. And if you want to see Tom Fulp’s other games, go to Newgrounds. People aren’t making Flash games, but they are making tons of weird games.
Matt Lieber is the last softball game of summer. Our website, where you can sign up for our weekly newsletter, is replyall.limo. Our show is available on Spotify, so go check us out there. You can also listen to the show on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or wherever you listen. Thanks for listening, we’ll see you next week.
A woman in New Jersey is getting strange phone calls to her office from unknown numbers. Every time she picks up, she finds herself eavesdropping on the life of a different stranger. Unsure what else to do, she calls in Super Tech Support. Further Reading The FCC consumer complaint center. FBI internet crime complaint center….
PJ VOGT: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m PJ Vogt.
ALEX GOLDMAN: And I’m Alex Goldman.
PJ: Alex Goldman.
PJ: We are back, and I have super tech support case for you.
[Super tech support theme music]
PJ: So obviously, super tech support is when we try to help a listener with an overly complicated computer problem they’re trying to solve. This one is absolutely the hardest one I’ve ever seen.
ALEX: Oh I’m excited now
PJ: OK, so, this came in from a listener named Jodie.
PJ: Hey, Jodie?
PJ: Our first conversation was back in March.
PJ: Yeah thanks for sending in a support ticket. It sounds very weird, what is happening to you.
JODIE: Yeah–it is. Nobody can s–seem to figure it out, and I work with all kinds of web people.
PJ: So the problem is happening at Jodie’s job. She works in New Jersey at this company that sells dot law domain names to lawyers.
PJ: Anyway, Jodie is the person who picks up the 1-800 number at work. And starting last December she started getting these like weird phone calls.
ALEX: Define weird.
PJ: So in the beginning, like, normal weird I would say. She’d pick up her phone and just hear this screeching modem noise.
JODIE: Like horribly loud feedback. Um, like really loud.
PJ: Or sometimes it would be like, um, this melody.
[Strange hold music]
ALEX: OK. So just getting a weird phone call, it’s just like hang up and move on.
PJ: Sure. But then, this thing starts happening where she’ll be sitting at her desk, she’ll pick up her phone, and she’ll just hear like, it’s as if a stranger, somewhere out in the world, is just holding the phone up to wherever they are.
JODIE: It just sounded like (sighs). It was outside? Or, yeah like, you could hear like muffled voices or like traffic.
PJ: Would, would any–like, did you try talking?
JODIE: Yeah, a lot. I did. I would be like “Hello?!” Like I would get really loud. And, and I thought, “Somebody’ll pick up or somebody’ll hear me,” but that never happened.
PJ: If she doesn’t pick up the phone, these’ll go to her voicemails. Which is actually how we’ve ended up with tons of recordings of these weird calls.
ALEX: I would like to hear some. I have a lot more questions, but I would like to hear some.
PJ: Yeah. Here–let me play you this one.
ALEX: It sounds like it’s a basketball game.
PJ: Yeah. That’s what I think. It sounds like a basketball game ‘cause you can hear a ball dribbling and you can actually hear sneakers squeaking–
ALEX: You can hear the sneakers squeaking. And then, at the very beginning you could hear a child saying something to their mom. Like, it’s being recorded from… What the hell is going on?
PJ: I know. Let me play you another one that makes this more confusing, and like, to me, just weirder. OK?
PJ: Where do you think you are?
ALEX: I hear birds chirping. I hear what sounds like a fly.
PJ: Uh huh.
ALEX: How does a fly pick up on a phone?
PJ: I know.
ALEX: But now there’s car sounds… What are those? Are those storm sirens?
PJ: I think so.
ALEX: (exhales) This is actually distressing.
PJ: I know.
ALEX: It feels bad.
PJ: I know. Also, once she started getting these calls, it was like some kind of dam had broken. Like, she was getting them all the time.
JODIE: I’d get them on the weekend, I’d get them in the middle of the night. Um, like I’ll come in and I’ll have three voicemails that have come from the evening
PJ: And it’s like with each call, she’s just thrown into some totally different place. Like, suddenly she’s just in the middle of a town square somewhere
PJ: Or, she’ll just be in a laundromat for some reason.
PJ: There are a lot of offices. There are a lot of muffled conversations between strangers
[Muffled conversations tapes]
PJ: There’s also just crystal clear phone calls.
[Clear conversation tape]
PJ: Some of the these actually feel like, too private to share. Like there’s one where somebody’s doing a criminal background check on somebody else.
ALEX: Does Jodie have any theories?
PJ: Um, she does but like when I pressed her on what she thought was going on she got really embarrassed.
JODIE: Yeah it’s weird, I mean now in this day and age when, you know, cybersecurity is such a thing, um, it’s just, you know, my mind is like, “Oh gosh, like what if the government is using my phone.” But you know that’s just like, uneducated, I’m sure. So that’s why I figured I’d e-mail you guys.
PJ: She’s like maybe the NSA was somehow accidentally forwarding me their wiretaps. So, I didn’t know– I honestly did not know if this was something that was happening on purpose or by accident, but the thing that was clear was that every day in America, people’s private lives are being broadcast to a Jodi. So, I asked her just a couple more questions about her phone setup.
JODIE: OK. So we have a Toshiba phone. And then we use Precision Interconnect, it’s like an authorized voice and data service agent.
PJ: Got it. OK.
PJ: And I told her I’d try to get to the bottom of it.
So I decided to start with the one clue I had. Which was just, every one of these calls to Jodie had shown upon on her caller ID. Every single one had a different phone number. And so I made a list of all those phone numbers, and I was just like, I’m just going to start calling.
PJ: (under breath) God this is weird.
MALE VOICE: Mmm-ello?
PJ: Hi, my name’s PJ Vogt, I’m a reporter, I’m working on a story about somebody who has been getting a bunch of strange phone calls, and this is one of the numbers that they’ve gotten a call from.
MAN: Uh, I haven’t been calling anybody.
PJ: I had a lot of awkward conversations with people who had no idea I was talking about. The longest one was with this guy at a call center where I just ended up like, consoling him.
CALL CENTER GUY: Yes, sir, I do apologize for that, I do understand, I like, my–
PJ: No, you do not have to apologize. No, no–I’m not upset, I’m just trying to understand.
CALL CENTER GUY: I’m so sorry about that.
PJ: No, no, no, no. No need to apologize. Um.
PJ: And it wasn’t just that nobody knew what I was talking about. It was like, the places themselves didn’t even match up. Like, this is what I got when I called the number from the town square.
WOMAN: We’re–we’re a dental office
PJ: Interesting, okay. Um!
PJ: The number for the distant, ethereal music, that went here:
FEMALE VOICE: The Carolina Renaissance Festival is open Saturday and Sundays. Thank you for calling the Carolina Renaissance Festival. Huzzah!
PJ: The number for that call that sounded like a basketball game–that belonged to this super friendly woman in Montana who actually was just like willing to stay on the phone with me and go through her calendar and make sure that on the date of the phone call, she had been nowhere near a sporting event of any kind.
MONTANA WOMAN: Yeah. No! Nothing.
PJ: Weird! Alright. I’m going to see what else I can learn about this. Do you mind if I call you back at some point?
MONTANA WOMAN: Keep calling me back, because I’m curious as shit now.
PJ: The one thing I noticed was a lot of the people I spoke to– they said that their phones were voiceover IP, VoIP.
ALEX: Meaning that they are making calls over the internet.
PJ: Which felt like maybe something. Because Jodie had VoIP too– remember, she said she got it through that company Precision Interconnect.
PJ: And so I started to wonder about Precision Interconnect. I’d never heard of them. And when I looked them up, one pretty basic web site and almost no web presence besides that. And every time I tried to call them on the phone, either nobody would pick up, or someone would tell me that Harley Bittman, who was the woman I was supposed to talk to had just left. Until finally…
UNKNOWN: Can I help you?.
PJ: Hey, this is PJ. I’m calling back to see if Harley’s in the office yet.
UNKNOWN: Uh… hold on for one second please
[Aggressive ballet hold music plays]
HARLEY: Hi, it’s Harley!
PJ: Hey Harley, my name’s PJ Vogt. I’ve been trying to get ahold of you. It’s good to get you on the phone.
HARLEY: How can I help you?
PJ:OK, so, this is- this is a complicated thing, um, so–
HARLEY: Wait, where–are you a customer of ours?
PJ: No, but I–I’m a reporter but I’m helping a customer of yours solve a interesting phone-related mystery.
HARLEY: You’re a reporter?
HARLEY: You’re a reporter…
HARLEY: (to someone off the phone) He’s a reporter! You’re a reporter for where?
PJ:OK, so, I work for a company called Gimlet, and, I ma–
PJ: Gimlet. Um–
HARLEY: Like a little, like part of a chicken, like?
PJ: No that’s giblet. Like-like the drinks that people have. But that’s not supposed to be a reference to that either–
HARLEY: Oh okay, alright–Anyway!
PJ: Eventually, I was able to explain to Harley what was going on with Jodie. I actually had to play her one of the phone calls for it to make sense.
HARLEY: Does that sound like birds? Or–
HARLEY: –somebody playing games.
PJ: To me, I listen to that, and I’m like that’s a farm. Like I think it’s like a–but so then I’m like, why.
HARLEY: See if it was harassment they would be saying things, ya know, unless they’re just–like who would do that?
PJ: Pretty soon Harley was like, just as fascinated by with these calls as I was. She had just like– she had never seen anything like them. And the more we talked, the more I realized like, that was a big deal. Because, Harley, her job brings her into contact with like more weird phone malfeasance than you could ever imagine. That’s why she’s always so busy. Like literally that day, the thing she’d been busy with before she got on the phone with me– was a hacker had broken into one of her customers phone and then made all these very expensive long distance calls.
HARLEY: Like to, you know, terrorist nations.
PJ: That happens?
HARLEY: Yeah. All the time. Not–I shouldn’t say terrorist nations, not, necessarily. It’s like people–it’s always international. I have a customer, they had $19,000 worth of international calls–
PJ: Oh my god–
HARLEY: –in one day. I can’t remember where those calls (shouts to someone off the phone) Where were those calls too? All over the world? (to PJ) All over the world. (to someone off the phone) But like, were they terrorist nations? You don’t know? (to PJ) I don’t know the–may-th-ah–they were $19,000 worth of international calls. That scenario is happening all over the place.
PJ: Okay so, what Harley calls terrorist nations…I looked into this. Here’s what I think she’s referring to. There have been actually been phone scams targeting Americans that have been used to fund terror organizations
ALEX: How does making phone calls fund a terrorist organization?
PJ: OK so here’s a real example from years ago.
PJ: Bunch of hackers from the Philippines break into a bunch of americans phone systems.
ALEX: Uh huh.
PJ: They spend the weekend dialing and redialing a very expensive 900 number that they own, and they rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in charges.
ALEX: Uh huh.
PJ: And then they take that money and hand it over to their sponsors, a Saudi Arabia-based terror group.
ALEX: That is so convoluted.
PJ: Yes it is. Also, it does not explain what’s going on with Jodie, because we checked her phone bill. It’s completely normal.
PJ: Harley is like, “I don’t know what this is, but I know it’s fishy.”
HARLEY: I mean, the thing that bothers me the most about the whole story…
HARLEY: –Is that she called back the numbers and it’s not the people.
PJ: Why does that bother you the most?
HARLEY: Because it means that it’s intentional that somebody’s putting in a different number.
PJ: Somebody was covering their tracks. But that was all she could tell me.
PJ: Which meant that it was time to call Dave Maynor.
DAVE MAYNOR: Hello?
PJ: Hey, Dave?
PJ: How’s it going?
PJ: Dave’s the guy who helped us Episode 53, in Atlanta. He is Super Tech Support’s Super Tech Support. I told him everything that was going on, everything we’ve learned, and he was like, “This is much ado about nothing.”
DAVE: None of this is like strange. Right?
PJ: It feels strange to me. So you don’t hear this and think, like malfeasance, hacking government wiretaps, et cetera.
DAVE: No no, there’s a there’s a logical answer like–so this is really like, this is a technical problem we just need to debug.
PJ: Dave told me like basically all he needed to do was just like, visit Jodie’s office, look at her phone, and he could figure out what kind of banal cross wire had created this problem.
PJ: I was like, “OK, but just in case, could I send you the recordings, just so you could hear them?” Two hours later, I got a message from Dave that said, “What the actual hell?”
DAVE When you described them, I was like, “It can’t be that–it can’t, it can’t be that interesting. It’s just going to be whatever.” But then you listen to them, and you’re like holy crap!
DAVE: Yeah, like, almost like episodic TV shows, right? Like, ah! What’s going to happen next?
PJ: He was convinced that they were basically like one big story that had been chopped up into all these phone calls, and if he could just lay them all in the right order, he would know the story.
[Police siren tape]
DAVE: Right, and I was like, alright, we’ll start correlating this. Where would there be an ambulance or a police car? There’s also like, a church bell, or something, right?
PJ: And that is how Dave ended up making his big discovery.
So I gotta play you two calls that came into Jodi’s phone, three weeks apart from each other. The first one is from March 6th— it’s the one that sounds like it’s from a basketball court
[Boy talking to mom tape]
PJ: And here’s a call she got on March 28th, from a completely different phone number.
[Boy talking to mom tape]
PJ: It’s the same call.
ALEX: (sighs) Oh. That doesn’t give me any ideas about what this might be!
PJ: Me neither. I was like, “Why is that so important?” He was like, “What that means is that somebody made this. There is a person or persons who have designed this to do something.”
PJ: Dave’s fascination with these recordings, and my fascination with these recordings, and Jodie’s fascination, and your fascination, we’ve been eating bait in somebody’s trap.
PJ: Coming up after the break, we get answers.
PJ: Welcome back to the show. Here’s where we are. Dave is convinced that these phone calls are actually recordings, and they were made on purpose by somebody.
ALEX: But why would somebody make recordings and just play them for people in a way that is designed to make me feel deeply uncomfortable?
PJ: So Dave was actually was like — what- I dunno, but I’m sure that this is basically about money. Because there’s so much money to be made in phone fraud, somebody would not come up with something so new and devious unless they were using it to make money.
ALEX: How would someone make money from one of these calls?
PJ: So that’s what I–actually Dave couldn’t answer. He was like, “I know a lot of guys who work in this field. I spend time dabbling in this field. What is so weird to me is I see the beauty and the genius of the bait, but the trap is totally in–invisible to me.”
And Dave said all of that and then he disappeared into Ukraine, like the country was crippled by this horrible ransomware bug, and he had to go fix it, and so he was just like gone.
PJ: And so I was just left with this question. And basically like, for months, I just roamed the earth looking for somebody else who could explain what this trap was to me.
I talked to this like white hat phone hacker in Berlin who seemed promising, but he’d never heard of it. There was a guy in Washington State who’d gotten ten years for VoIP hacking, no dice. I learned about Wangiri fraud, toll bypass fraud, wholesale sip trunking. Nothing explained these spooky calls, and nobody I talked to had even like, heard of them. Until the end of July, when I found this guy in Santa Barbara.
PJ: Say your name and like, your title, like how you want us to identify you.
JAMES BROWN: Sure. James Brown. I’m the senior manager of cloud operations at Invoca.
PJ: James works for this company that does call tracking and analytics for other companies. I got James on the phone, did the thing I always do, which is like, told him about Jodi, told him about the phone calls. James reacted completely differently
PJ: She would just hear like ambient recordings from like, god knows where in the world.
JAMES: Yeah (laughs).
PJ: Um, does that sound familiar to you?
JAMES: Yeah. Very.
JAMES: Yeah. Is she just like on a cell phone or does she have a toll free number, like at an office or something that’s getting called?
PJ: Toll free number at an office. She works, she–but basically, she, a few different 1-800 numbers that are widely advertised on the internet go to her.
JAMES: Yup. And they probably don’t change. They’ve probably been up there on the internet for a long time .
PJ: This is all true. I like that you’re already able to fill in–this makes me feel like I’m close to this.
PJ: Turned out James was way further down the rabbit hole than me. For instance, I have 62 of these recordings. James has collected over 10,000.
PJ: I’m so curious if you’ve heard the ones I’ve heard. Like, there’s one, it sounds like it’s outside and then there’s like something that sounds almost like an air raid siren that’s really–a lot of them creepy to me.
PJ: Do you know that one?!
JAMES: I do yeah. If you clean it up it actually sounds more like a train horn.
JAMES: Train’s going by. But yeah, it’s funny because when I first heard it, I thought the same thing. I was like, “What is this, like a nuclear like test in Russia?” (laughs) Yeah.
PJ: I just feel so excited to meet you because I’ve been spending so much time in the audio of these calls. It feels like finding out somebody who likes the same band as you (laughs), but you never meet anybody who likes the band.
JAMES: It’s pretty fascinating, actually. Like, two and a half years ago, one of our customers reached out to our customer success team with a call recording and they were like, “Hey what is this? And why are they calling me?” And I listened to it and I was like what the? That got my curiosity perked in and then, yeah.
PJ: And so the first thing that James notices is that these weird phone calls, they’re only going to the customers who have 1-800 numbers.
ALEX: OK. Alright.
PJ: Um, and so James decides to build a honeypot. He registers 20,000 1-800 numbers and he monitors everything that goes into them. Every weird phone call they get, he records it, and he looks at the metadata.
And he figures out that what he’s looking at is a computer program. It’s a massive computer program, designed by somebody to scrape the Internet for 1-800 numbers, including Jodie’s, and then place hundreds of thousands of calls to these 1-800 numbers every day. And the program has been designed to hide itself. It’s supposed to look like normal phone traffic, so the phone carriers don’t realize what’s going on.
JAMES: It starts ramping up about 6:00 a.m., and hits peak probably around like 9:00 or 10:00 a.m., and it tapers back down with business hours. They literally–and here, here it even gets even better. So we caught them one time where they messed up because they forgot to turn off their traffic on a holiday.
JAMES: So we saw their traffic go through the roof and they realized that, at like two or three o’clock in the afternoon. And they cut it and you just saw a clip, like their traffic’s going and then boop! It just falls off.
JAMES: Because they’re usually very smart about it. Like they’ll honor like bank holidays. They just try to blend it in.
PJ: And so James then starts going to phone companies and being like, “Okay how would somebody make money off of somebody else by calling their 1-800 number and playing like, spooky sounds over the phone line?
PJ: And he is able to piece together an explanation, which I am now going to give to you. Uh, which is, you’re just gonna have to bear with me.
PJ: OK, so, in the 1960s. (laughs)
ALEX: UH. (laughs) I’m here. I’m here for this.
PJ: So, in the 1960s, toll free numbers are invented, okay?
JAMES: The way that the toll-free industry works is that it’s a reverse payment system, right? So you have a toll free number, I call you, I don’t pay. Right? The–the remote end pays.
PJ: So– so that I knew. But what I didn’t know is that when a company has a toll free number and they pay the phone company a dollar or whatever, the phone company takes that dollar, and shares it with every other phone company that helped make the connection.
PJ: So like I’m making this up but if I call Jodie right now, I’ll place the call and it’ll go to like an AT & T tower near me, and then a Verizon Tower in Manhattan, and then over to a Sprint tower to New Jersey, to Jodie.
JAMES: So there’s 1, 2, 3 hops down the chain. Each one of those, you know, for a 1 dollar phone call, is getting maybe ten cents, right? Carrier 2 is getting ten cents. Carrier 3 is getting ten cents.
PJ: So, it’s actually even less money than that. But, there’s so many of these calls happening every single day, that even though the phone companies might just be dividing fractions of penny each time, those fractions of pennies add up to like millions of dollars.
PJ: And so what happened a few years ago apparently, is some brilliant person was like, “Huh, I would love to take some of that money.” And what they did was go to some shady telecom company somewhere, like Crazy Eddie’s Phone Service and they were like, “Listen, I am going to place a ton of 1-800 calls though you, and when you get paid for them, share that money with me.”
JAMES: So, the more phone calls I can make, and the longer that those phone calls stay up, the more money that I make.
PJ: OK, so how does that get us to spooky phone calls from nowhere
JAMES: Aha! So, let’s think about that, right?
JAMES: I send out a bunch of phone calls that are just silent, right? It takes you what, a second, two seconds. “Hello hello, damn it.” Hang up the phone, you’re done, you’re gone. So how do you keep people on the phone, right? You appeal to their curiosity.
PJ: So like those first calls that Jodie was getting, like the static and the music, those would have been the first drafts. And then the later calls, it was like the scammers were actually figuring out how to be interesting.
ALEX: It’s so–it’s so brilliant. It’s so stupid and so smart at the same time.
PJ: Also, James doesn’t think this is like a bunch of scammers doing the same thing. He thinks all of these calls are coming either from one small group or even like one person.
And he even has a theories about who that person could be. He says retired, in their mid 40’s, used to work at one of the big phone companies.
JAMES: Like, I’m convinced that that’s who that is. Because, like, it has to be someone that’s very intimate with large scale traffic, right?
PJ: James says that the list of people with the know-how to pull of this scam is so short, he’s basically talked to everyone on it while he was learning about it.
PJ: Did you ever feel like maybe you were sitting across from the person?JAMES: So many times.
JAMES: Yeah. So, we go to conferences and stuff like that. And people would ask questions, almost like this exchange, right? Where they would be asking these question, “Oh that’s so interesting, so interesting.” And then I start thinking, I’d be like, I wonder if he’s trying to find counterintelligence. We also saw two occasions that within 12 hours of attending the conference, we saw the traffic shift significantly.
JAMES: And the carriers that the traffic came into changed, so it was like– it was like a game of cat and mouse, you know? .
PJ: Do you ever wonder why the person the fraudster hasn’t stopped? Like they’ve made a lot of money, they know that people are pursuing them–JAMES: My guess is because they are not afraid. I think they’re literally thumbing their nose at government agencies. If you look at some of the recordings that they use, they’re literally reading news articles off WhiteHouse.gov, off like the FCC website. (laughs) Like, to me that seems like a very literal thumb to them. Because I think they know that it’s very difficult for them to get caught.
PJ: Basically to get ’em, you got to go to Crazy Eddy Telecom and be like “Listen, all that money you’re making off one of your customers, you need to stop. It’s illegal. I need all the information on them. Hand it over.” And they have no reason to cooperate. Basically James would need subpoena power.
PJ: Yeah. Can you just say, so I have it for our thing, can you just say your name and, and what your job is?
PAT ARMOR: Yeah. So, um, my name is Pat Armor and I’m a special agent with the Cyber Division of the FBI.
PJ: James has got reinforcements. He is now sharing his honeypot with the FBI and the FCC. There’s an open investigation. And I asked Agent Armor, like do you agree with James that it’s possible that this whole mess, hundreds of thousands of phone calls everyday, phone companies losing untold gobs of money, could it all really be the work of one person?
ARMOR: A lot of the characteristics of the calls, um, tend to be the same. I’d say it’s not coming from a ton of different folks. I’ll–I guess I’ll just keep it at that.
PJ: Is this person or persons–are they catchable? Like, can they be caught?
ARMOR: Yeah. They will be caught.
PJ: OK! (laughs)
ARMOR: Yup. No doubt about it (laughs). There’s a lot of money involved.
ALEX; He sounds awfully confident that he can catch this person.
PJ: Yeah, I kinda believe him (laughs). Um, so I still had to call Jodie back. So I called her, I was like, “We can’t actually stop these call,s but the FBI is on it and when they arrest the person, then I think the calls will probably stop.” She was basically just excited to finally know the origin of these weird phone calls she’s been getting.
JODIE: Oh my gosh!
JODIE: I fell into the–I fell into the trap, because I used to like, leave them on for 20 minutes when I picked up the call.
PJ: (laughs) This person probably really likes you a lot.
JODIE: Aw, man! (laughs) I mean, I guess I made somebody some money, so…
PJ: She said I could close her ticket. We hung up. And then she got another phone call.
[Phone call: Here, though the earth be removed and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the seas, though the waters thereof roar and be trouble, though the mountains shake was the swelling thereof, selah. There is a river that streams, whereof shall make glad the City of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most high. God is in the midst of here. She shall not be moved. Go shall help here and that rise early. The heathen raves, the kingdoms will move, he uttered his voice, the earth mountain. Lord of hosts is with us. The God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah! Come, behold the works of the Lord, with desolations he hath made in the earth.”]
A website for people who are way too high. Plus, could LSD unlock our better selves? Does PJ even have a better self? We investigate. (This month we’re rebroadcasting the best Reply All episodes, as chosen by you, the listeners. We’ll be back with new episodes in September.)
Amy and Ryan Green’s one-year-old son is diagnosed with cancer and begins an agonizing period of treatment. And then, one night in the hospital, Ryan has a strange epiphany: this whole terrible ordeal should be a video game. (This month we’re rebroadcasting the best Reply All episodes, as chosen by you, the listeners. We’ll be…
On this week’s episode of Reply All, PJ and Alex go outside. (This month we’re rebroadcasting the best Reply All episodes, as chosen by you, the listeners. We’ll be back with new episodes in September.)
To find all our sponsors and show-related promo codes, click here.