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.)
This week, Alex and Damiano take a trip.
PJ VOGT: Before we start the show, if you have not already listened to last week’s episode, #102 Long Distance, go listen to that first. This episode is the conclusion to that story.
ALEX GOLDMAN: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m Alex Goldman.
PJ: And I’m PJ Vogt.
DAMIANO MARCHETTI: We made it. We’re here.
ALEX: Yeah, how you feeling?
DAMIANO: Good. Mmm. The air’s different.
ALEX: So PJ, uh me and Damiano–we landed in Delhi on a Monday evening. Uh, this was about a month ago, around early July.
PJ: And what–like what did–what were you guys hoping for?
ALEX: So Kamal told me that he would answer all of my questions about this call center if I came to visit him. So, I was there to see if he would answer all my questions. And if he wouldn’t, I was going to find the answers for myself.
DAMIANO: Alright, Jaswinder says he’s by gate number five.
ALEX: So we met up with our driver, we got a driver, his name is Jaswinder.
PJ: Uh huh.
DAMIANO: Hey man, how’s it going?
JASWINDER: I’m just fine.
ALEX: He takes us to our hotel.
DAMIANO: I think that’s it, right there.
ALEX: That’s it. P5, Haveli. That’s it. [Get out of car]
VOICEMAIL: The Magic Jack customer you have called is unavailable to take your call. [beep]
ALEX: Hey, Kamal, it’s Alex Goldman, um–are you planning on coming in tomorrow? We want to meet you. Um, yeah, I’ll give you a call tomorrow morning. Take it easy. Bye.
DAMIANO: So, we wake up the next day.
ALEX: And Kamal still hasn’t called us back. Which is fine, because that’s sort of what Kamal always does. He disappears and reappears, sort of on his whim. So we do what we always do when he disappears, which is investigate Accostings more.
ALEX: And here’s our plan: We want to find the call center. At the very least, we want to know exactly where it is, and from there, we can figure out what to do next.
DAMIANO: Good morning, Jaswinder.
JASWINDER: Good morning, boss.
DAMIANO: (laughs) How are you?
DAMIANO: So I tell Jaswinder to take us to this neighborhood called Punjabi Bagh. We want to go to main drag there. It’s called Club Road.
DAMIANO: Ok, uh, anywhere around here. Like here is good.
[Door opens and closes. Sounds of a busy street.]
DAMIANO: Goddamn it’s hot out. There’s not really a sidewalk here so we’re just in the middle of–
ALEX: Yeah there’s no sidewalks.
DAMIANO: –oncoming traffic.
DAMIANO: So we have two addresses for Accostings and they’re both on this road.
DAMIANO: Lot of businesses, crammed signs. Chara Shawarma…
ALEX: There’s a salon called Headlocks.
DAMIANO: This guy is carrying … a lot of bamboo.
PJ: And do you know anything about the neighborhood? Is it like scam city?
ALEX: The neighborhood is actually pretty residential, and there are other call centers there, but we’re pretty sure that they’re all legit.
ALEX: The first place we go–
PJ: Can I tell you where I would go first?
PJ: I would go to the bar they hang out at.
ALEX: Ding ding ding ding ding!
ALEX: So I think this is it.
ALEX: So the first place we go is Chug It.
PJ: CHUG IT! That’s so funny.
DAMIANO: Yeah, so Chug It, it’s on Club Road and it’s in between these two addresses we have.
DAMIANO: So how do we get up there?
ALEX: So, on this building there’s a staircase that’s actually outside the building. And on each floor, there’s a landing, which has the entrance to the business on that floor. And we go up three flights to where Chug It is, and there’s a guy standing out in front of the bar.
MALE VOICE: Hello.
DAMIANO: Hi. Are you guys open right now?
MALE VOICE: No, but usually a group or–?
DAMIANO: No, we’re not with the group.
ALEX: But the this guy explained to me that Chug It actually shut down. This isn’t Chug It anymore.
DAMIANO: What happened?
MALE VOICE: Well, it’s been taken over by the–by different owners actually. So they’ve changed the name to Headphones. Yeah.
DAMIANO: Oh it–
MALE VOICE: It’s a trial open today.
ALEX: Oh, i’s not open!
DAMIANO: It hasn’t even opened yet?
ALEX: There were doing a soft launch–
PJ: They don’t have the headphones yet, that’s why the music’s so loud.
ALEX: Funny you should mention that, because it’s one of those headphone bars.
PJ: That’s a thing?
ALEX: You never heard of headphone clubs where like, DJs play music, but there’s no sound over the speakers and people wear headphones and listen to it and dance–?
PJ: That is so embarrassing. Just the, the image of people dancing to music you can’t hear in a club, it’s the only thing that could make dancing in a club less comfortable.
DAMIANO: No, PJ, picture this: Three DJs. Three different kinds of music. Pick your channel!
MALE VOICE: Well, it’s not being open, so it’s about to in three or four days.
[Music comes on in the background]
DAMIANO: But do you know, know guys that come here from a call center close by, on Club Road?
MALE VOICE: There’s, there’s a call center upstairs as well.
DAMIANO: There is? What’s the name of the call center?
MALE VOICE: They’re a domestic call center, too.
DAMIANO: Domestic call center. So you don’t know any guys who come in here from an international call center?
MALE VOICE: Not yet, because it’s not been opened yet for the public.
ALEX: So we go downstairs, and we’re like, let’s try the first address we have for Accostings, and the address is 1 Club Road.
DAMIANO: Hi–sorry, do you live here?
DAMIANO: We actually talked to a guy there who was really sweet.
DAMIANO: It says Accostings Infotech Limited is renting the third floor.
MALE VOICE: No, no, no it’s an NGO–it’s for relaxing, for the mind.
DAMIANO: It’s a meditation center. He’s like, “I’m really sorry. I don’t know anything about a call center.”
DAMIANO: That leaves us with the other address that we had, which is 26 Club Road. And 26 Club Road is the address that Accostings has on the map on their website.
ALEX: So then we walk, I would say it’s probably half a mile, three quarters of a mile to the–to 26.
PJ: And it was hot out, right?
ALEX: It was truly a nightmare. I could only–
PJ: Was Alex–was Alex stoic and cool about physical discomfort?
DAMIANO: (laughs) He would like, so there was like a cafe–there was a Starbucks on the block.
ALEX: There was a Starbucks on the block.
DAMIANO: So like pretty much Alex could only be outside for 30 minutes at a time, then we’d have to go and sit in Starbucks (laughs). Because he would overheat. And Alex–
PJ: (laughs) He’s like the–he’s like the gentleman reporter. He’s like so frail.
DAMIANO: He also like, he just like–I don’t–maybe I haven’t spent a lot of time walking around with you, but you just like fall and stumble a lot.
PJ: Oh, constantly. Constantly.
DAMIANO: He like–do you know when you like, uh, fall asleep on your arm and you wake and like, you can’t really move it? Those are all of his limbs.
PJ: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah!
DAMIANO: And he’s just like, stumbling around and falling–
ALEX: What the f–what is going on in this studio right now!?
DAMIANO: He literally–
PJ: I’m trying to know what happened in Delhi–
DAMIANO: He, he almost fell in the sewer.
DAMIANO: (singing) We’re on the side of the road.
ALEX: What? (stumbles)
DAMIANO: Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.
ALEX: Oh, I almost fell down a hole.
DAMIANO: Jesus Christ, Alex.
ALEX: (laughs) I’m alright, everything’s fine.
PJ: So–so–so you guys are–you’ll walk couple feet, Alex will go inside and put ice all over himself–
PJ: And then he falls in a sewer.
PJ: And you have to bring him out.
PJ: But eventually, like three days later, you make your way down the street from 1 Club Road to 26 Club Road?
ALEX: We get to 26 Club Road:
DAMIANO: That one.
DAMIANO: So it’s this building?
ALEX: According to my–thing.
DAMIANO: This is a fancy building!
ALEX: And it looked much more like a possible candidate. So, on the first floor of this building there’s a bar. There’s a business on the second floor and then the third floor had no markings and was all tinted windows.
DAMIANO: Should we ask the security guard if he knows Accostings?
ALEX: We could.
DAMIANO: Hello sir, how are you? Is there a call center, Accostings, in this building? A call center. Accostings? Accostings?
ALEX: This security guard does not speak English. And we can’t really understand each other. But, here’s the thing: We know that Accostings is supposed to be on the third floor of the building that it’s in, and this really just feels like it could be the place. And, if it is Accostings, at 6PM, like an hour from now, right when people in the U.S. are waking up, there’s gonna be a stream of young call center workers heading into this building. So we decide to stake it out.
ALEX: I’ve got my eyes peeled for any faces that I recognize. None so far.
DAMIANO: So we’re waiting. We’re waiting. And by 7:30 no one has shown up.
ALEX: (sighs) There’s nothing going on at this address.
DAMIANO: This just can’t be the place.
ALEX: So now what?
DAMIANO: (sighs) I don’t know, you tell me.
ALEX: We’re started to feel a little bit desperate, and even though he’s been dodging us, I send Kamal a text message.
ALEX: I said, “Hey Kamal, what’s the address of Accostings? I know it’s on Club Road, I’m just trying to find the exact address.”
ALEX: And Kamal writes back:
ALEX: He says, “Yeah, it was. I left and it’s no more in operation for the time being.”
DAMIANO: Dude–I’m freaked out a little bit!
ALEX: (off-mic) Why?
DAMIANO: What if they closed down?
ALEX: Come on. They closed down two days ago?
DAMIANO: It’s possible.
DAMIANO: We like, sit down on a stoop on the side of the road, and I–I think literally have my head in my hands and I’m just like, “Oh, my god. We flew all the way here to find this call center and now we have no idea where it is and like, no real way of figuring it out.”
DAMIANO: I have a huge knot in my stomach (sighs).
ALEX: And then after a day chock full of disappointments, Kamal delivers us one piece of hope. He texts me again and says, “Let’s meet up for dinner.”
ALEX: He said, “I’ll pick you up, and then we can go somewhere good-good–somewhere good for a night out.”
ALEX: Yeah, sounds good.
ALEX: So, we head to this area called Cyberhub, which is just south of Delhi, and Kamal tells us to meet him at this wine bar there.
DAMIANO: …I just got nervous, officially…
[Get out of the car]
DAMIANO: So we get there, and it’s like this big huge American-looking mall. Um, and the bar–the wine bar was in this mall, it’s like near the entrance.
[Music at the wine bar]
ALEX: We pull out our recorders again.
SECURITY GUARD: Yeah, no allowed.
ALEX: The security guards immediately tell us to put them away.
[TAPE CUTS OUT]
ALEX: So we take out our iPhones.
[iPhone tape of background noise]
PJ: And record with your iPhones.
ALEX: And record with our iPhones.
ALEX: Do you think that’s just a stray dog?
DAMIANO: Stray dog is chilling.
ALEX: How does a stray dog get into a place with like security like this?
ALEX: We wander around for awhile, waiting for Kamal, and then he says, “Hey I’m in the wine bar, come meet me.” So, then Kamal comes out of the bar and I recognize him immediately.
[Loud music playing]
KAMAL: Hi Alex. How are you?
ALEX: Good! Nice to meet you, man.
ALEX: We give each other a very awkward hug. Kamal kind of turns sideways.
DAMIANO: Kamal does one of those one-arm things, he tries to like, deflect.
PJ: You hate hugs.
ALEX: I know.
[Loud music playing]
ALEX: How are you?
KAMAL: Good, good, good.
DAMIANO: Do you mind if we go somewhere a little quieter?
ALEX: It’s very loud.
DAMIANO: It’s a little loud.
KAMAL: No, inside it’s not that loud.
ALEX: Oh, it isn’t?
KAMAL: Let’s, let’s try it.
PJ: So, what does he look like?
ALEX: He’s much smaller than I imagine him to be. Because he looks big, stocky in the photos that we have of him.
PJ: Yeah, he does.
ALEX: And he’s smiling and he’s friendly, but he really wants us to go in the bar. He says, “I’ve got a friend with me.”
PJ: “I’ve got a friend with me?”
ALEX: So we go inside–
DAMIANO: This person has their back to us. And you can see from the back, he’s wearing sort of like a tight, black shirt.
ALEX: (at the same time) Black t-shirt. His hair slicked back.
DAMIANO: He’s like a big beefy dude.
ALEX: And, we get around to the other side of the table and we face him, and immediately, we realize.
DEEPAK: Hey, Alex.
ALEX: Deepak, nice to meet you!
ALEX: It’s Deepak Verma, the owner of Accostings.
PJ: That’s crazy!
PJ: Also, what a villainous reveal!
ALEX: Yeah, totally.
DAMIANO: And we’re both like–
ALEX: We’re both like–well, we have no–we’re not prepared for this. (laughs).
[Extremely loud music plays]
ALEX: [difficult to hear] How you guys doing? Thanks so much for meeting us guys! I can’t believe we’re actually meeting face to face. This is crazy!
ALEX: So obviously it’s very hard to understand this audio–it was very hard to understand them in this very loud bar that they insisted on meeting us in. I thought, “I’m gonna try and roll with this.” Damiano thought, “I’m gonna throw up.”
PJ: Why did you want to throw up?
DAMIANO: The whole time we’d been talking to Kamal, we thought that we were sneaky, and that we were talking to someone who was trying to either keep us a secret, or who was like, sort of, doing his own thing, going rogue–
PJ: Right. It’s like, this guy used to be in the mob, he’s out of the mob, he’s going to tell us about the mob, he tells you to come meet, and then the GODFATHER is at the table, right?
DAMIANO: Right. So I lean over and I whisper in Alex’s ear and I say, “Don’t ask any big questions. Let’s just watch them and try to figure out what’s going on.” And then I turn to Deepak:
DAMIANO: You guys grew up in Del–you grew up in Chandigarh, did you grow up in Delhi?
DEEPAK: Born in Delhi.
DAMIANO: You were born in Delhi.
DEEPAK: Born, born.
DAMIANO: So, we try to make awkward small talk. But Deepak has one question he keeps asking:
DEEPAK: What’s the plan when you’re here?
DAMIANO: We’re just gonna hang out.
DAMIANO: What is your plan?
DEEPAK: Oh, so what’s your day like, what’s your whole day like?
DAMIANO: I don’t know yet, we’re playing it by ear…
ALEX: Kamal on the other hand is leaned back in his chair, he’s barely saying a word, he’s constantly referring to Deepak as like, “Sir” and “Boss.”
DAMIANO: And he’s become so sort of meek, that you kind of like–
PJ: Like he’s trapped underneath something.
ALEX: Yeah. And at one point during dinner, I ask Kamal, “So, six months ago, did you ever expect that we’d be sitting across from one another?” And before he can even answer, Deepak immediately launches into what sees like a scripted response to any question we might have about the validity of their business.
DAMIANO: Yeah, it’s basically like how the call center never did anything wrong, and like the scam call that we got was just like this funny, weird mix-up. And anyway Accostings is like shut down now, so don’t even worry about it.
ALEX: So, I asked Deepak, like, “What are you doing now that you’ve shut the call center down?”
PJ: Uh huh.
ALEX: And he said, “Oh–I got–I’m in construction now.”
ALEX: So um, we continue eating dinner.
ALEX: He’s not hungry.
DAMIANO: I don’t know what to tell you man–
ALEX: Damiano’s too stressed to eat anything.
DAMIANO: –first day in Delhi, my body is like freaking out.
DAMIANO: Yeah. (laughs)
ALEX: But they keep ordering stuff, and I’m not going to be rude, so I’m just like, romp, romp, romp, romp, romp–chomping away.
ALEX: Fine. I’ll get some chicken tikka. You guys…
DAMIANO: Every time I thought this meal might finally be over, Alex was like, “I’ll take some chicken tikka!”
DEEPAK: You want it spicy, or a little spicy?
WAITER: For the chicken tikka.
ALEX: Let’s try spicy. Find out what happens.
DAMIANO: Meanwhile, my stomach is like fucking cirque du soleil.
DAMIANO: Let me tell you another reason why I was so nervous.
DAMIANO: At one point, Alex just like tells them where we are staying, tells them the name of our hotel, which was Haveli House.
PJ: Did you?
PJ: What an–why?
ALEX: I don’t know.
DAMIANO: So, I suffer through the rest of the meal, and then we finally call it a night.
DEEPAK: So, nice meeting you guys.
DAMIANO: Nice meeting you guys. I’ll see you again.
DAMIANO: Kamal-final–nice to finally meet you.
ALEX: Yeah, we’ll talk to you tomorrow.
DEEPAK: Just talk to Kamal and let me know what’s the plan for you guys have tomorrow.
DAMIANO: Goodnight Deepak, goodnight Kamal.
ALEX: Goodnight guys!
ALEX: Weirdest two hours of my fucking life (laughs).
DAMIANO: Oh my god. Ohhhhhhh.
ALEX: We leave. And then we go to bed.
So the next day, Wednesday, primarily what we do is move hotels.
ALEX: Thursday morning comes, and we’re honestly starting to panic a little bit, because the clock is ticking–we have two days left in India, and we have gotten nowhere with these guys. And then, in the early afternoon, my phone rings.
ALEX: Hey Kamal?
KAMAL: Hey Alex. How are you?
ALEX: Good. What–uh, what are you up to?
KAMAL: So we can meet in one hour, in next one hour we can meet at Connaught Place, I’ll message you the restaurant.
KAMAL: Perfect. See you, Alex.
ALEX: So the first time we met with Kamal, we were totally caught off-guard because we did not expect Deepak to be there.
ALEX: And we also kind of wanted to feel them out a little bit before we started hitting them with tough questions. (laughs) But this time, we were thinking, “Ok, we’re going into this, we’re gonna be prepared, we’re gonna ask them really direct questions about Accostings.”
PJ: So what you’re describing is your plan was to interview him in the manner of a journalist?
DAMIANO: So, the place that we’re supposed to meet them is a bar called Tourist Lounge. We get there early.
[In the restaurant]
DAMIANO: We bribe the waiter to turn down the music in our section.
DAMIANO: We get our recorders out.
DAMIANO: Hi, my name is Damiano Marchetti.
DAMIANO: We test the sound.
ALEX: Check one, check two.
DAMIANO: And we’re just like, sitting there at the table ready for them when they show up.
ALEX: And then…
ALEX: They’re here?
ALEX: …Deepak and Kamal arrive. And things immediately start going off the rails. It’s clear that they know everybody in this bar.
DAMIANO: The waiter that I had bribed like snaps to attention.
ALEX: They say hi to the manager.
[Loud music plays]
DEEPAK: Come sit down, come on!
DAMIANO: How was your day?
ALEX: Yeah, what have you guys been up to?
DEEPAK: Oh, hectic.
ALEX: What’d you do?
ALEX: And once they see the microphone…
DEEPAK: Are you doing me?
ALEX: Yeah, I’m recording.
DEEPAK: Well, don’t record anything, I’m not able to interview. Ok?
ALEX: But … I travelled halfway across the world to talk to you guys. I have so many questions for you.
DEEPAK: You have so many questions, then sit down and ask me anything, but don’t record. It’s not–it’s not allowed.
ALEX: Why is it not allowed?
DEEPAK: It’s not allowed to record anything without my, you know.
ALEX: Well I mean I’m not hiding it from you, I’m talking to you right now, I’m letting you know that I’m recording it.
DEEPAK: [speaks in Hindi]
DAMIANO: Deepak steps away from the table to talk to the waiter, and Kamal sits down.
DAMIANO: Kamal, how you doing man?
KAMAL: We’re not here for the interview. Why are you asking this? I just came because we are friends.
ALEX: I know, but like–I mean I’m not trying–I’m just like–so, look. I mean I have so many questions about Accostings, you know. We are working on a story about it. And I think it would be worthwhile to have you guys talk.
KAMAL: But we are not available for story. No, we are not available. I think–
DAMIANO: Kamal, there is a story. The story is already happening.
DAMIANO: The story is happening whether you want to or not.
KAMAL: Then it’s fine, no problem. Go ahead. But we are not going to say anything about all these things. We are just here for you Alex, nothing else. Not for the [unintelligible]. You understand.
ALEX: I understand.
KAMAL: Leave it. Just close it…
ALEX: Deepak keeps saying “Why are you sticking this microphone in my face? Turn it off. Turn it off right now.”
DAMIANO: And then he waves–he sort of like waves the waiter over.
PJ: Uh huh.
DAMIANO: And the waiter kind of leans over our table…
ALEX: And he says, “Do you want me to call the authorities?”
ALEX: And we say, “No, we don’t want you to call the authorities.”
DEEPAK: You cannot insist us to say anything or you cannot–
ALEX: I’m not insisting anybody do anything. Alright. [MIC SHUTS OFF]
DAMIANO: We put the recorder away.
ALEX: No one says anything. Deepak is looking off to the side. He just pulls out a cigarette and starts to smoke.
DAMIANO: But like the waiter’s still there and Deepak is talking–keeps saying something in Hindi to the waiter. So I’m sitting there, and I’m just like waiting for the cops to show up. Everything in my body’s telling me, like, we need to get out of here. And then the waiter comes over and puts like a full bottle of whiskey on the table. Deepak pours himself a drink of whiskey.
PJ: Like just whiskey?
DAMIANO: Whiskey and Coke, that’s his drink. And drinks it. Then he pours himself another and drinks it.
ALEX: And he is pouring sweat. Every couple of minutes, he would take his napkin and just wipe his face down because he was sweating so badly.
DAMIANO: This is like a guy who feels cornered by us, I think.
DAMIANO: And, I ask Kamal about Alex Martin. I’m like, “Remember that first call you had with us?” And Kamal he completely denies that he was ever Alex Martin and, more than that, he says he fired Alex Martin. He was like, “That guy was a troublemaker that I used to–that used to work for me. I fired him.” And what Kamal is really saying is that like, anything you think you know about me being Alex Martin, or really anything, it’s a lie. Period. And then he turns to Deepak.
PJ: Uh huh.
DAMIANO: …and they speak in Hindi for a second.
DAMIANO: And then Deepak says, “Alex Martin? Fuck that guy.” And then he pulls out his right hand, and his pinkie’s sort of like gnarled, it’s got like this bruise on it. He says, “You know how I got this? This happened when I slapped the shit out of that guy.”
DAMIANO: And so, at that point, I was just like, I’m done with these guys. Like, there is no reason for us to talk to them anymore.
ALEX: So me and Damiano left the bar, and left Deepak and Kamal there.
ALEX: You alright?
DAMIANO: I have no words. This world is so insane.
ALEX: That night, I was having a very hard time sleeping. So in the middle of the night I just picked up my phone and called–I didn’t record it–I just picked up my phone and called the call center.
And I was like, “Let me talk to Kamal and Deepak.” And the person on the other end kept–just kept saying to me, “Who are you? Who are you? What do you want from us? Who are you? Why do you want to talk to them?”
And I was like, “But Kamal and Deepak do work there, right?” And they were like, “Who are you?” And I was like—it still exists. It has to still exist.
ALEX: So Friday morning we wake up, and we’re feeling at this point, confronting these guys isn’t going to make any difference. If we want to get anywhere while we’re here, the only thing we can do is find that call center.
DAMIANO: The only problem is, we have no idea where it is. And we only have one day left in India.
ALEX: So, we decided to find Accostings. But we had no idea where to start. So we went back to Punjabi Bagh, we went back to our Starbucks, and we met up with this reporter named Snigdha Poonam.
ALEX: Hey! How are you?
SNIGDHA: Good, how are you?
DAMIANO: It was actually someone that we had been in touch with before, we talked to her a lot when we were in the US.
ALEX: She works for the Hindustan Times and she did sort of the defining, gigantic feature story–Indian feature story, about call center scams. She spent months running after these guys:
SNIGDHA: … we were was always like, showing up somewhere and figuring out that–thank you–that, that the place didn’t exist there and then we would like, spend days finding out where the place actually was.
ALEX: Basically what she has learned is that this is a problem of epidemic proportions. There are call centers of maybe 10 to 15 people, there’s call centers of like 400 to 500 people. An–and almost all of these call center scams that hit the U.S. come from India. Like, close to 90 percent.
PJ: And why can’t they just arrest everybody?
ALEX: Um. It’s really hard for Indian authorities to stop these places because new ones are starting up every day. And as soon as you take one out, it’ll pop up somewhere else under a different name. But Snigdha has found a way to always find these call centers.
PJ: Which is what?
ALEX: Even scammy call centers post their job listings online.
SNIGDHA: These people are desperate for employees all the time, so like, they won’t give you a fake address, like not if you were coming to interview. We should call–I should call Accostings saying that I have an appointment and I can’t find the address and to give me the address. Do you have the number?
SNIGDHA: Hello. [Speaking Hindi]
ALEX: Very quickly, she’s like, “Yes, I speak English.”
SNIGDHA: …and I’ve done some call center work. You know, I mean, I’m looking to work at a place like Accostings where there’s uh, more opportunities for growth. And, um, and to-to–to further improve my communication skills. Today, what time? 7 o’clock. Um, okay, I’ll come, but can you send me the address, please? Punjabi–? Club Road? Why don’t you just text me the entire address, and I’ll come to the–I’ll come to the building. Thanks, thanks a lot. Ok. Bye.
DAMIANO: So what did she say?
SNIGDHA: She said to come for the interview immediately.
ALEX: Did she give you the address?
SNIGDHA: No, she’s–she’s going to text me the address.
ALEX: And, maybe fifteen minutes later, we get the address.
PJ: What’s the address?
ALEX: So, uh, it’s 1 Club Road.
PJ: Wait, but 1 Club Road was the meditation center.
ALEX: Uh, yeah, that was 1 Club Road, but this is:
1 Club Road, Plot #1, Third floor, Punjabi Bagh Extension, New Delhi, opposite the 24/7 Store, and above Figaro Salon.
PJ: (laughs) Ok.
ALEX: So we go outside, we start wandering around.
DAMIANO: It’s supposed to be on the other side of the street. [horns honking] Well, now we must have passed it, no?
DAMIANO: Snigdha’s asking people. Like, “Figaro Salon? Figaro Salon?”
DAMIANO: She’s walking up in the middle of the street, she just walks in the middle of the street with such grace and dignity.
ALEX: And I see Figaro Salon. And then I realize–oh my god, I know where the call center is.
ALEX: You’re not going to fucking believe this.
ALEX: It’s the place right above Headphones.
DAMIANO: Shut the fuck up.
ALEX: Yeah, it’s the place right above Headphones.
DAMIANO: OH MY GOD.
ALEX: Accostings is above Headphones, the bar that we visited the first day we were here.
PJ: Whoa. So wh–when they were going to Chug It, it was in the building.
PJ: So you guys were right beneath them.
ALEX: It’s–it’s the place right above Headphones, it’s been that–it’s been right above it all along.
DAMIANO: So crazy, Alex.
ALEX: We were there on the first day.
ALEX: So we’re like, “Listen, we wanna go up there and see if we can talk to anybody.”
ALEX: And Snigdha says, “It’s probably not a great idea for two white guys with microphones to go blundering into this call center that they’ve spent six months harassing. So, look. Why don’t I go up there, do the job interview, we’ll get a lay of the land and see if it’s safe for you to go up there?”
SNIGDHA: I’ve done this sort of interview like now–like ten times? I just hope that really nothing goes wrong but I can’t tell any any reason they would like, suspect me of sh–shady stuff.
ALEX: So Snigdha says, “If I’m not out in ten minutes, call me. If I don’t answer, call the police.”
ALEX: So we post up across the street. And Snigdha heads into the building.
ALEX: I look at my phone. It’s 7:02 pm. She needs to be out of Accostings by 7:12.
DAMIANO: So we’re kind of looking down at the entrance of Headphones.
[Silence, sound of cars honking]
ALEX: How long’s she been up there?
DAMIANO: I don’t know. [pause] Oh! [pause] No that’s not her. Another woman. Come on, Snigdha. [pause] Call her. Call her, call her.
ALEX: Here she comes.
DAMIANO: Here she comes?
ALEX: She comes across to us and we go back to our Starbucks to regroup.
ALEX: Ok. Uh. So…
SNIGDHA: It’s like a really weird, it’s like–no way to guess this structure.
ALEX: Snigdha gets a napkin, and she starts to draw a layout of the inside of Accostings.
SNIGDHA: This is the staircase…
ALEX: First she says, “Take the stairs to the third floor. There’s a glass door, and in front of that door is a security guard.”
SNIGDHA: …this young guy who’s just sitting there with a–with a notebook outside the doors…
ALEX: “Once you go through that door, the calling floor, the place where they’re actually making the calls, is on your left.”
PJ: And how many people?
ALEX: She says, “Well more than 40 people.”
DAMIANO: So Snigdha says there’s these rows of desks…
SNIGDHA: …and there’s this aisle, and this like, tall muscular man stands here, like, literally tall muscular man stands here looking menacing, to his left and to his right. Just making sure that people are working I guess. It was really weird. But I–you can see it through the door.
DAMIANO: What did he look like?
SNIGDHA: Not like any of these–he was a floor manager.
ALEX: So, we want to go up there–
ALEX: — just to see if we can get into the call center, see if we can talk to anybody, basically how far we can get. But he problem is, (laughing) we obviously can’t go in if Deepak and Kamal are there.
DAMIANO: Because we don’t want to have a confrontation, we don’t want to have a fight. So here’s what we do.
ALEX: Hi Kamal.
ALEX: I call Kamal.
ALEX: Can we meet later this evening?
ALEX: And I make plans to meet up with him way across town, like an hour from now. But we are going to go to the call center.
PJ: You guys are finally getting some leverage on these guys.
DAMIANO: Ok, we’ll call you–if we’re not, if we don’t call you in…
SNIGDHA: I’ll give you 10 minutes.
ALEX: So, at this point the sun’s gone down. Snigdha leaves us across the street.
DAMIANO: Ok, crossing the street.
ALEX: We go into the building…
DAMIANO: Take the stairs.
ALEX: … we go up to the first floor…
DAMIANO: Here’s Figaro Salon.
ALEX: …the second floor…
DAMIANO: Here’s the soon-to-be-opened Headphones bar.
ALEX: …third floor.
DAMIANO: Ok, now we’re approaching Accostings. Walking up to Accostings.
ALEX: So, when we get to the front door of Accostings, there’s nothing there.
ALEX: That’s it. That’s it.
DAMIANO: Look. The gate is closed for some reason.
ALEX: There’s a grate pulled down over the door, there’s no security guard.
DAMIANO: There’s an empty–like where she said there would be, where she said there would be security, the chair’s empty.
ALEX: There’s no markings saying that it’s Accostings. All that’s there is a security camera. Snigdha was here 10 minutes ago, and now it’s completely shut down.
ALEX: (whispering) I think there’s someone right behind the door.
DAMIANO: Hello? (knocks)
ALEX: Just wait. It’s padlocked from the outside…
ALEX: So we’re standing there waiting. Occasionally knocking on the grate. But we’re not getting any answer. And we just don’t really have any idea what to do.
ALEX: Suddenly, we see Snigdha coming up the stairs.
DAMIANO: We had forgotten to like text her or call her or anything, and so she’s super freaked out. She doesn’t know what’s going on. She’s like, coming to the building to see what the deal is.
ALEX: So we tell her, “The grate on the front door is closed.” And Snigdha seems really rattled.
SNIGDHA: So this is what happened, I think. It’s because like that’s how everyone thinks it’s a domestic call center, they pull down the shutters and then they do their scam shift. So…
DAMIANO: So, that they look like a closed business.
SNIGDHA: This is like a proper crime set up.
ALEX: Snigdha’s found a million shady call centers before, and she says that even the sketchiest ones leave their door open to give it the patina of respectability.
ALEX: And the fact that Accostings has their door shut, and they’re trying to look like they don’t exist, is just very worrisome. These are bad dudes.
And then she says basically, “Look, if you guys want to continue pursuing this, that’s fine. But the fact that these people are hiding the fact that this call center even exists makes them seem a lot more dangerous to me. It’s up to you.”
But, we are standing at the front door of the call center. We’re not just going to walk away.
DAMIANO: So, Snigdha calls the woman who had originally given her the address. And the woman says, “Oh, if the front grate is closed, just go upstairs, there are some security guards. They’ll let you in.”
ALEX: So Snigdha leaves, and we go up to the roof.
[WALKING TO ROOF]
ALEX: It’s dark up on the roof. To the right of us, there’s this shack, and there’s two guys sitting under a light, just a couple of feet away.
ALEX: Excuse me. Third floor?
MAN: Third floor is there.
ALEX: Gate is locked.
MAN: Gate is locked?
ALEX: And then one of the guys at the top of the stairs shouts at these two other guys that are on our left that we hadn’t even seen. They’re completely shrouded in darkness.
MAN: [speaking Hindi]
OTHER MAN: Yeah, it’s closed now.
DAMIANO: It is closed? So no one can open the door?
OTHER MAN: I think nobody’s here.
DAMIANO: Huh, it looks like there’s lights on in there.
DAMIANO: And, the guy calls back over to the dudes that are in the shadows. I don’t know what those guys say, but this guys responds, he’s like, “It’s. Closed.”
ALEX: So we go back downstairs, but we feel like our time in this building is limited. We have just alerted Accostings security guards to the fact that we’re trying to get into their company. But we want Kamal to know that we were there.
So I pull out my phone, I stand in front of Accostings’ door, and I make a little video to send to him.
ALEX: Can I–can I have the?
ALEX: Here. Yeah. So that’s, that’s the door. The grate behind me is–
PJ: You’re wearing a hat, and smirking before the video even starts.
DAMIANO: And there’s like, the-the–the–
ALEX: There’s a little garland across the top, which is–
PJ: It looks like Christmas lights.
ALEX: It’s, um, it’s actually um–mango leaves? Mango leaves are, like, a traditional Hindu thing where you hang them to ward off of bad karma, evil spirits.
PJ: Alex Goldman. Sounds right.
ALEX: Alex Goldmans. Basically.
PJ: American podcasters. Ok.
ALEX: So this is what I said:
ALEX: Hey, Kamal, it’s Alex. Um, sorry I missed you. Um, I went to the call center to see if you were there so we could hang out but um, maybe next time I guess? Uh, I’ll be in touch. Uh, it’s been fun hanging out this week, I’ll talk to you soon. Bye.
PJ: You rude little scamp. You’re just smirking. So, what happened?
ALEX: So, we go back downstairs, we meet up with Snigdha at the Starbucks again.
ALEX: And, we haven’t even sent Kamal this video yet.
ALEX: Hello? Hello–
KAMAL: Yes, Alex.
ALEX: Hey, what’s up?
ALEX: And I get a call from Kamal.
ALEX: Um, and I assumed it was going to be like, “Hey where are you guys? Let’s meet at–what’s it called–bar!”
ALEX: What’s going on, what can I do for you?
KAMAL: Yeah Alex, tell me–, you sound like you went to Punjabi Bagh or something? I want to tell you one thing, ok. Listen. I’m telling you you’re not welcome in office. Ok?
ALEX: I thought the–I thought the call center was closed down.
KAMAL: Without telling me what you want.
ALEX: I thought the call center was closed down.
KAMAL: Listen, you want to come to office again, or what?
ALEX: I thought the call center was closed down.
KAMAL: (pauses) None of your business, Alex. None of your business.
ALEX: You’ve lied to me this whole time.
KAMAL: Hardly matters. I lie to everyone. Doesn’t make any difference. You’re not a god. What do you want? What’s next? Why can you meet, tell me where you can meet now?
ALEX: I don’t want to meet you right now. You guys know, you guys know where I stand, and you lied to me, so why–why should I meet you right now? You’re not going to tell me the truth.
KAMAL: I’ll come and see you in Haveli, ok? Just wait for me there.
ALEX: What? You’re going to see me where?
KAMAL: I’ll see you in Haveli, ok?
ALEX: Which is the–
PJ: Hotel, where you told him you were staying.
ALEX: The hotel where I told him we were staying.
ALEX: And I said, “You know what? Go for it.”
ALEX: Come to Haveli whenever you want. But this sounds like a threat to me. Are you threatening me?
KAMAL: I don’t want to threat, I am not saying threat, okay?
ALEX: Can you admit to me that you’re a scammer please?
KAMAL: Forget about it, ok, fuck you, just tell me what do you want, that is the bottom line, Alex?
ALEX: What do I want? I know everything I want. Listen to me. I know about Neha, I know about Usman, I know about Streetwise Marketeer. I know about everything that has to do with your business. I know where your front door–
KAMAL: Listen, it doesn’t make any difference if you know about anyone.
ALEX: I know where your front door is.
KAMAL: What do you want?
ALEX: I wanted to know who was the person who called me and tried to scam me. And I figured it out. And I–
KAMAL: No I don’t about him
ALEX: Don’t bullshit me, Kamal. It was Accostings, and I know it was Accostings.
KAMAL: So what–what exactly do you want from me? That’s what I’m asking you, Alex.
ALEX: I want you to admit that you guys are scammers and that you steal money from people.
KAMAL: No, that is not going to happen, don’t worry. That is not going to happen.
ALEX: Then I think that we don’t have anything else to talk about.
ALEX: Are you there?
DAMIANO: Let’s get out of this neighborhood.
[Mic shuts off]
ALEX: He never called me again.
DAMIANO: Um. So now we’re going to the airport.
JASWINDER: Your story’s complete here?
DAMIANO: I think so.
ALEX: Yeah, I think–I think it is. I think we’re all done.
JASWINDER: So boss, we are reaching Delhi airport.
PJ: Do you feel like you guys got what you went there for?
ALEX: You know it, this is–this is sort of–the reversal that I wanted to feel is this. I think that everyone–I think there’s been a crazy uptick in fraudulent calls in the US.
ALEX: It’s–it’s not even something that’s really under discussion. And it feels like a gamble any time you pick up a number you don’t recognize. It sucks. It’s like a–it’s like a feeling that feels like it has no control–there’s no control. And all I wanted was, for once, to express that, to like reverse that feeling. To make those people feel like, “Oh!”
PJ: They don’t know what’s going to happen either.
ALEX: “Oh! We’re playing with a loaded gun if we call people.” And I happen to be the bullet in that gun. (laughs)
PJ: A very sweaty, clumsy bullet.
ALEX: Shut the fuck up!
PJ: That loves to eat delicious Indian food.
ALEX: I’m not going to say no to Indian food!
PJ: Stays in a hotel and gives you the address, um, and ultimately sends you a video of itself. That’s the way it kills you.
[MUSIC PLAYS OUT]
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. More editorial help this week from Jorge Just. Production assistance from Sherina Ong. This is Sherina’s last week. She has been amazing. Sherina, thank you for everything. We were mixed by Rick Kwan and Matthew Boll.
Special thanks to Willard Foxton.
Matt Lieber is a bonfire on a beach.
Reply All is now available on Spotify, so go check us out there. You can also listen to the show on Google Play, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen.
And one more thing, don’t ever let anybody remotely connect to your computer. Just because I did it, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
We’re going to be running some of your favorite episodes over the month of August, but we’ll be back in September.
Thanks for listening, you’ll be hearing from us very soon.
This week, a telephone scammer makes a terrible mistake. He calls Alex Goldman.
ALEX GOLDMAN: From Gimlet this is Reply All. I’m Alex Goldman.
PJ: And I’m PJ Vogt.
ALEX GOLDMAN: PJ…
ALEX GOLDMAN: So, ’bout seven months ago, the end of January, I had just spent a long afternoon recording with producer Damiano Marchetti. And just during a break I got a phone call from a 1-800 number. And, I don’t know what it is about 1-800 numbers.. My natural ih-impulse is to just be curious as to who’s calling me so I always pick them up.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Always.
PJ: Do you have a natural impulse to open junk mail?
ALEX GOLDMAN: (laughs) If the uh.. `subject’s funny enough.
ALEX GOLDMAN: So I get this call. It is a robot saying, “Your iCloud may be compromised.”
BRITISH VOICE: We seriously recommend you to call us on 1-844-885-0011. We request you not to use your computer or other Mac devices before speaking to our certified technicians.
ALEX GOLDMAN: And—and so I’m thinking to myself, “Hm. I don’t think my iCloud is compromised.”
ALEX GOLDMAN: So I called them back:
RECORDING: Your call is very important to us. Please stay on the line and you will be transferred to the next available agent.
ALEX MARTIN: Thank you for calling — talking to Alex. How can I help you?
ALEX GOLDMAN: What a coincidence. My name is Alex. Uh, I got a call that said that there was some sus–
ALEX MARTIN: No, your name is Michael Goldman!
ALEX GOLDMAN: My middle name is Alex. I go by Alex.
ALEX MARTIN: — Oh, you go by Alex. Okay Alex. How can I help you?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah, I got a call that- so there was some kind of suspicious activity going on on my iCloud.
ALEX MARTIN: Okay. What kind of activity? How do you know about that?
ALEX GOLDMAN: I got a call from you guys.
ALEX MARTIN: You got a call?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah.
ALEX MARTIN: Alright. Alex we have seen that your IP address has been compromised from other countries in the last 2 days. Have you been to some other countries, using your devices over there?
ALEX GOLDMAN: No.
ALEX MARTIN: And do you have any computer, like a laptop or desktop with you.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Yes, I do!
ALEX MARTIN: Alex, the thing is that we need the help of a computer so we can rectify this kind of issues. Is that possible you can access the computer, please?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah, I’m standing right in front—I’m sitting right in front of it. Just to be clear, you guys from Apple?
ALEX MARTIN: Yes sir, I’m a certified technician to support Apple. That’s right.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Okay. Do you have some kind of uh ID—ID number that I can call Apple to cross reference? Cause I don’t—I’ve never experienced anything like this before.
ALEX MARTIN: Sir, you are already calling us, so you will call us back to ask for my ID number?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Uh…yeah! Well, I’m trying to figure out what’s going on here. And I just—I don’t, you know. I’m- I’m curious what’s going on…
ALEX MARTIN: So you want to call one of our technician here to verify my IP address—my I–my ID, right?
ALEX GOLDMAN: No, no, no, no, no, no– I want to call Apple to verify–
ALEX MARTIN: — You are already calling us, sir. So, you want to hang up the call and call us again?
ALEX GOLDMAN: No, how do I know you guys are Apple, though? What proof do I have? I’m looking up this phone number. I don’t see it associated with Apple at all.
ALEX MARTIN: You can look that again, sir.
ALEX GOLDMAN: I’m looking up this phone number online. It does not say that it is any–it’s related to Apple in any way. So I’m trying to figure out who you are. Who are you? Are you calling from Apple?
ALEX MARTIN: We are anonymous. We are legion. Expect us.
ALEX GOLDMAN: You’re–oh, you’re anonymous, you’re legion, expect you?
ALEX MARTIN: Yes.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Are you come (laugh)– Are you coming for me?
ALEX MARTIN: We will be demolishing all of your social identities.
ALEX GOLDMAN: All of my-my–me personally, or like–?
ALEX MARTIN: We — have broken some laws on the internet. — have — some porn sites displaying some sort of child porn. We have eh-detected some issues. And we have –deducted that whoever you, wherever — are, we will be demolishing all your social identity and leaking them on the porn site itself.
ALEX GOLDMAN: You’re going–just I want to be perfectly–I want to be perfectly clear here. You’re saying that you are going to, first of all, destroy all of my social media stuff. Then you’re going to leak it onto a porn site?
ALEX MARTIN: That’s right.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Uh, cool. I’m recording this. Um, I hope that you like being on YouTube, cause this is definitely gonna-gonna to go on there.
ALEX MARTIN: (laughs) Seriously? Tell me the channel. Where–What name will you upload it?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Uh okay. So, what–So eh- in all honesty like what is your- what is the deal–
ALEX MARTIN: –You tell me. You tell me. What’s the channel name? What’s the channel name? I will subscribe you. I will like you. — I will do everything.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Cool. What’s the scam you guys are running? What are you—What do you do…When you call people what are you trying to get from them? What-Do you sell them antivirus software? Is that the deal?
ALEX MARTIN: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s what we do.
ALEX GOLDMAN: And how much are you selling it for?
ALEX MARTIN: $400.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Really!? $400?
ALEX MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah.
ALEX GOLDMAN: And how—and like How oft–How many sales would you say you make in a day?
ALEX MARTIN: Here are- Here we are around 50 to 55 people and we make around…I-I personally make around six or seven sales a day.
ALEX GOLDMAN: So, six or seven sales a day. So that’s what? So it’s like seven, four. I’m really bad at math, I’m sorry. That’s like 2800 dollars a day?
ALEX MARTIN: Somewhat.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Wow! How much a that do you get to keep?
ALEX MARTIN: 50 percent.
ALEX GOLDMAN: 50 percent?
ALEX MARTIN: Yeah.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Don’t you feel bad at all about scamming people who don’t know anything about computers?
ALEX MARTIN: No I don’t.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Why–Why not?
ALEX MARTIN: Why would I?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Because–
ALEX MARTIN: You guys have a lot of money that needs to be spent.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Who-Who is “you guys”? Who are you talking about?
ALEX MARTIN: Like, the people we scam.
ALEX GOLDMAN: But, how do you know how much money I have?
ALEX MARTIN: We judge them, like we make a judgement. Like, somebody with the name Richard or –having a really good name, you say like, “They all–they must be having good amount of money.”
ALEX GOLDMAN: Wait–eh-people- m- The amount of money someone has isn’t based on what their name is!
ALEX MARTIN: Ah, yes.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Um. Lemme- How do you choose me–how’d you find [Fades]
ALEX GOLDMAN: So this guy who says his name’s Alex Martin we talk for a couple more minutes. Um, I ask him stuff like “How did you get my number?” And he won’t answer me and then he hangs up. So the second time I called back, I did not get Alex Martin, sadly. I got a different guy.
PJ: Uh huh
CHARLIE: So this is Charlie. And I’m a certified technician who support Apple customers.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Nice to meet you, Charlie.
CHARLIE: So I checked your number, sir, and it says that your Apple ID has been compromised.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Uh oh. What—what does that mean?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Um. And, uh, rather than say right away, “I know this is a scam.” I let him diagnose my computer. I let him connect to my computer (laughing).
ALEX GOLDMAN: Yes.
CHARLIE: On the top of the browser, in the address bar, type a technical website that is
PJ: That is bad judgement.
ALEX GOLDMAN: (laughing)
PJ: Like you gave him remote access?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Yes.
CHARLIE: So we’re successfully connected now, sir. Can you see my cursor moving on your screen?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Yes, I can.
PJ: So what did he do when he started to get in there?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Oh my god. It is the best!
ALEX GOLDMAN: I could not believe how amazing it was (laughing).
PJ: What? You are so weird.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Okay. So, what this guy did is he got on my computer, he opened up the terminal, which is just this little window that allows you to enter text commands into your computer.
PJ: I’ve been in there like twice.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Mhm.
PJ: When you open terminal, it looks like you are hacking a mainframe in a–bad movie.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Right. That’s exactly what it looks like. And he ran a command called netstat. And what netstat does is throw up a bunch of information about your computer, um, like connections to the internet. It has the old-school hacker look that you’re talking about.
ALEX GOLDMAN: So, then, he suddenly makes the terminal window incredibly small.
PJ: Like he just made it like postage-stamp sized?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah, so that he could still use it, but I couldn’t see what he was doing.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Why did it get so small? I’m trying–
CHARLIE: Just give me one second, sir.
ALEX GOLDMAN: I’m trying to read it.
CHARLIE: Uh. Even I don’t know, sir. Just give me one second, sir.
PJ: That is…so, like, not slick (laughing).
ALEX GOLDMAN: And then he made it big again and written in it was, um, something like, “iCloud Compromised”
ALEX GOLDMAN: “SSED Hacked”
ALEX GOLDMAN: And then it said—it-what it meant to say was “Zeus Trojan Detected.”
PJ: Uh huh.
ALEX GOLDMAN: But what he had–what he had typed was “Zeus Troan Detected” with no J.
PJ VOGT: (laughing)
ALEX GOLDMAN: What’s Zeus Troan?
CHARLIE: Okay, the wording is… Zeus Trojan, sir.
ALEX GOLDMAN: But it doesn’t say Trojan. It–
CHARLIE: —a Zeus Trojan is found in your device.
ALEX GOLDMAN: It says Troan. It doesn’t say Trojan.
CHARLIE: It doesn’t say Trojan?
ALEX GOLDMAN: No, it says Troan, There’s no J.
CHARLIE: Yes……… Wow.
ALEX GOLDMAN: And then, without missing a beat, he continues to l- to like go through his script. And he says:
CHARLIE: Ok, it says that your Apple ID is compromised, and a Zeus Troan is found. Okay?
PJ: (laughs) He’s a good improv comedian.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Um. So, at that point, uh I–I revealed again that I knew who he–w-what was going on.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Charlie–
CHARLIE: –Yes? Yes, sir?
ALEX GOLDMAN: –I know that, I know–I know that you’re scamming me. I know that you’re at least trying to scam me.
CHARLIE: Yes, I know.
ALEX GOLDMAN: –Cause I know what net—I know what netstat does.
CHARLIE: –Yes. Exactly, sir. You’re a genius sir. You’re intelligent.
ALEX GOLDMAN: (laughing) I’m not that intelligent.
CHARLIE: Yes, sir. You are technically savvy.
ALEX GOLDMAN: -Well- I’m not that technically savvy, I just know that you misspelled Trojan.
CHARLIE: -No No No. You are technically savvy–
But you are–a little bit.
ALEX GOLDMAN: So I’m curious…[Fades]
ALEX GOLDMAN: I tried to get this guy to tell me more about what was going on at this call center, but he pretty quickly hung up on me. And…
PJ: –They’re gonna have like a picture of you in the call center soon.
ALEX GOLDMAN: That’s like “Do not surf this man”?
ALEX GOLDMAN: So, I keep calling them back and eventually, I realize the mistake that I’m making, is that I am so excited to let these guys know that I’m onto them, that I don’t let them play out their entire script. So I don’t know what the full scam actually is. So, I call back again:
ALEX MARTIN: How can I help you?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah. Uh…[FADES]
ALEX GOLDMAN: And I get Alex, the guy from the first call. But I don’t want him to know that it’s me, so I use a different name, I tell him that my name is Rusty Savage. And we go through the entire thing again.
ALEX MARTIN: Alright sir, now we are connected, sir.
ALEX GOLDMAN: And he opens up the terminal. He runs netstat, says I have a virus. And then I say like, “Oh. That sounds terrible. What do I do to fix it?”
ALEX MARTIN: So, to fix this kind of problem we will require some other –network technicians of Level 9.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Okay.
ALEX MARTIN: And they must be certified from Apple to handle this case.
ALEX GOLDMAN: So, he forwards me to the technician, Level 9, and that technician tells me to go to a website called Quick Pc Resolve.
PJ: Quick Pc Resolve…?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Do you want to take a look at quickpcresolve.com?
PJ: Yeah. Hold on. See like, I feel trepidation about visiting this website.
ALEX GOLDMAN: You shouldn’t.
PJ: Well, that’s what you say. Okay. So I’m (laughing) I’m at Quick Pc Resolve…. (laughing) Ha! Ohhhhkay! So uh–So–it’s a lot of stock photos. Uh, there’s a really happy business woman with her-with her arms in a victory pose. “Next generation tech support. We assure you best experience with us.” There are a lot of copywriting and, and graphic design choices that suggest like, this certainly isn’t Apple. Like it-Like it looks–It doesn’t look great.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Right. So we got to this website and the Level 9 technician was like, “Okay, so I’m going to need your credit card. This is going to cost a couple hundred dollars.” And I was like, “-A-ho-Okay, listen. I am not going to give you my credit card information because I know this is a scam. Like how stupid do you think that I am?”
ALEX GOLDMAN: Do you just have a really low opinion of Americans in general?
LEVEL 9 TECHNICIAN: Yes.
ALEX GOLDMAN: And why do you have a low opinion of them?
LEVEL 9 TECHNICIAN: You guys are conservative-minded people. Still you are fighting for who is black and who is white. Everyone is human being. But you guys are doing terrible thing to your brother, your people that are living in your country. You are killing them and you are robbing them. And you are saying that you are very honest.
ALEX GOLDMAN: I’m gonna be honest with you. I agree with you. But listen, I am a human being.
LEVEL 9 TECHNICIAN: No, you–you were also a human being when you bomb 1947/45 atom bomb on Japan. –Have you heard about that?
ALEX GOLDMAN: –Okay. Th- I have heard about that.
LEVEL 9 TECHNICIAN: –Millions–[CUTS]–millions and millions people died—
ALEX GOLDMAN: I—that was—
LEVEL 9 TECHNICIAN: And still in Japan, babies are—babies are born and paralyzed and disabled.
ALEX GOLDMAN: —That was 45 years before I was born. So I only had so much decision making power when that happened. —
CHARLIE: –So listen to me. You are all ee– Where was the humanity of those American people that point of time?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Uh
CHARLIE: –Alright? You’re talking about human beings. What–You don’t have answer of my question. And you are giving me talk– You are giving me long speech about the human being? What do you–Just don’t talk–
ALEX GOLDMAN: I’m not a–Look`
CHARLIE: –You can hang up the phone–[FADES]
ALEX GOLDMAN: It was a long and very frustrating conversation. And eventually, he got tired of me and hung up just like they always do. And, I would say under five minutes later, I was getting ready to leave the studio. And the phone–the studio phone rang.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Hello?
ALEX MARTIN: Yeah. Hi, is that Alex Goldman?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah. Hey, what’s up?
It was Alex Martin again.
ALEX MARTIN: Yeah. Hi Alex. How are you?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Good.
ALEX MARTIN: You’re a liar.
ALEX GOLDMAN: What do you mean?
ALEX MARTIN: Why you said –your name was Rusty Savage?
ALEX GOLDMAN: (laughing)
ALEX MARTIN: Your name is Alex. I know that.
ALEX GOLDMAN: So, how’s it going Alex?
ALEX MARTIN: (laughing) How’s it going. Great buddy, great. You—you fooled me. You got me. You know? –It’s so embarrassing, buddy.
ALEX GOLDMAN: I appreciate you calling me back, man!
ALEX MARTIN: Uh. Yeah! I did–I want to talk to a person who fooled me. My goodness. I don’t know how I fell for you.
ALEX GOLDMAN: (laughing) So the guy who I was talking to was really indignant and super mad. Is he actually a third party company? Or is he just part of the same company you’re in?
ALEX MARTIN: He was no third party company. He’s just– He’s just the third person sitting next to me.
ALEX GOLDMAN: (laughing]) Of course! Ah! Oh man.
ALEX MARTIN: You’re a famous personality on Google, you know? You just Google your name and you got a..silly looking guy having half bald hairs. Big, fat, and wearing a spectacles. Having a weird smile.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Oh yeah I do have a—
ALEX MARTIN: Looking a bit gay. —?
ALEX GOLDMAN: I do have a weird smile. I dunno—I mean I’m—
ALEX MARTIN: Oh yeah. You have a very weird smile.
ALEX GOLDMAN: That’s kinda mean.
ALEX MARTIN: -I bet you wanna kiss—come and kiss me right away.
ALEX GOLDMAN: I don’t want to kiss you. But I—
ALEX MARTIN: Of course, thank god. Thank god, thank god you don’t want to.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Um. What do you do for fun?
ALEX MARTIN: I’m a hacker. Whatever stuff like piss me off, I hack it.
ALEX GOLDMAN: So are you going to hack me?
ALEX MARTIN: Why would I be doing that? You never piss me (laughs).
ALEX GOLDMAN: Oh, well that’s good! I was worried that I might have made you mad. I mean, you did call me fat two minutes ago.
ALEX MARTIN: Ah no buddy, ah-these were just for—I was just kidding.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Okay. Cool. Cool, cool, cool. That means a lot to me!
ALEX MARTIN: Yeah. What do you–what do you do? What do you do like–What do you do for fun?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Uh, play guitar. Uh, play video games. Uh…
ALEX MARTIN: Hm. What games you play?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Uh well, here’s the problem. I have an old computer. You-you–you know. You’ve—you guys have been on it plenty of times.
ALEX MARTIN: Mhm.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Um. And it–I play–I play a lot–on Steam. But I mostly play like older games. Like Team Fortress 2 I like a lot. Um, stuff like that. What do you play?
ALEX MARTIN: What do I play? Counter-Strike.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Ooh…
ALEX MARTIN: Warcraft.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Are you good at Counter-Strike?
ALEX MARTIN: Pretty good? I’m hella good.
ALEX GOLDMAN: I suck at that game. I suck at that game.
ALEX MARTIN: You suck it? Why? C’mon!
ALEX GOLDMAN: Because—I don’t know. I like–I liked–
ALEX MARTIN: Oh would you–Would you really mind if I called you back? Now? Right away? I give you a quick call back? Would you mind?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Uh why?
ALEX GOLDMAN: He didn’t call back.
PJ: How old do you think this person was? That is like the homophobia of a junior-high-schooler or a high-schooler.
ALEX GOLDMAN: He told me. He was 22.
ALEX: He’s a kid.
ALEX GOLDMAN: And I kept calling the call center back asking for Alex but I couldn’t get him again. It was like he totally vanished. By this point, everyone at this call center was just stonewalling me. Like they were totally done with me. But I was not done with them.
I was determined to figure these guys out. And I had a piece of evidence to go on. That website: Quick Pc Resolve.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Welcome back to the show. So, PJ, this story has like ballooned in terms of its complexity and density. And so, I have, uh, since the beginning basically, been working with producer Damiano Marchetti on research. He is in the studio right now.
DAMIANO MARCHETTI: Hi PJ.
PJ: Hey Damiano.
ALEX GOLDMAN: So you’ll remember that before the break we have one piece of evidence to go on which was this website Quick Pc Resolve.
PJ: Uh huh.
ALEX GOLDMAN: We looked up the Whois record for Quick Pc Resolve. And we found a couple a names associated with it. And when we checked to see if those people had any other websites, we found this whole great constellation of scammy tech support websites that looked exactly like Quick Pc Resolve.
PJ: Got it.
AG: But there was one that was associated with these guys that was different.
PJ: Which was?
DAMIANO: It was this website called accostings.com
PJ: Accostings? Like to accost someone?
ALEX GOLDMAN: It’s a weird name for a website. Even weirder name for a company.
ALEX GOLDMAN: The company is called Accostings Infotech Private Limited.
DAMIANO: And when we go and look at the website it’s so different then the other ones we’ve seen. It says very clearly that it’s a call center. And it has what looks like a real address on Club Road in New Delhi. It has a real Indian phone number.
AG: Not a 1-800 hundred number like all the other ones have.
DAMIANO: And so we’re like, “Is this like the parent company? Like is the place where all of these scams are coming from?”
AG: So in order to figure that out I just called the number on the accostings website.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Hi, I’m trying to reach technical support.
THEM: Yup. How can I help you, sir?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Uhhhh. Just to be clear, this is Quick Pc Resolve?
THEM: Yes Yes. It’s Quick Pc Resolve, sir. Absolutely correct.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Thank you very much.
ALEX GOLDMAN: And so then I went to all the other websites. I called all the other 1-800 numbers and asked them they were Quick Pc Resolve. And they all said yes. It doesn’t matter which one of these websites we go to. It doesn’t matter which number we call. They’re all going to the same call center. It’s the same company. It’s this company Accostings.
And so we started researching Accostings, and there was this one name that kept popping up over and over again. This name Kamal Verma. And I was like, “Who is this guy?” So I just started calling the call center and asking for him.
FEMALE VOICE: Thank you for calling premium technical support. How may I help you?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah. Uh. I’m trying to reach, uh, Kamal Verma. My name’s Alex Goldman. I call you guys pretty regularly. Uh. Is he there?
MALE VOICE: Hello?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah. Uh. Trying to reach Kamal Verma.
MALE VOICE: Please stop calling us.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Um. I’m not going to, uh, until I –get the answers that I’m interested in.
MALE VOICE: That’s okay.. Then keep calling us.. Keep calling us.
MALE VOICE: You know what? You are an asshole. –You are–You are an asshole. You are an asshole.
ALEX GOLDMAN: -Why Wou–Why would you say that?
MALE VOICE: Because you are an asshole!
ALEX GOLDMAN: But why-
MALE VOICE: You don’t know about it? You’re bothering.
MALE VOICE: Who is-Who is Kamal Verma, sir? I don’t know.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Can you put me in touch with him?
MALE VOICE: Uh. Do one thing–just bear with me, bear with me for one minute.
MALE VOICE: Hello?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Hi?
MALE VOICE: Yeah, this is a wrong number, sir.
ALEX GOLDMAN: No. It isn’t. I know it’s not a wrong number.
MALE VOICE: Yeah, I’m going for a dinner. Bye-bye.
ALEX GOLDMAN: So I didn’t really get anywhere. But, on that last call you can hear a couple people speaking in Hindi faintly in the background for a minute. So I got Shruti Ravindran, who is a producer on another Gimlet Show, Science Vs, and also speaks Hindi, to come into the studio and listen to see if she could translate for me.
SHRUTI RAVINDRAN: I think um- So (sighs) s-The person said, um, “He keeps calling and he’s taking—this is Hindi-ism—taking Kamal sir’s name.” I mean, he professed to not know this guy, but he used like a respectful tone to call him. So he does recognize him, and then, um, I think he was proposing by the end, the other person he spoke to was proposing by the end to, um, say it was the wrong number.
ALEX: So Shruti told us that these guys are using a term of respect for Kamal, like a term that you would use for a superior. And so we’re pretty sure that Kamal is the boss of Accostings. And Damiano starts to dig really deep on this guy.
DAMIANO: Yeah I started doing tons of research on him. I find his Facebook page, uh, which of course has all these pictures on it. And I wanna show you one of them. So, Kamal, and like, all the big-wigs I think, they like to go to this bar called Chug It.
PJ: Chug it? (laughs)
ALEX GOLDMAN: …down the street from uh, from the office. Kamal is the second from the left.
PJ: Oh, he looks like the boss.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah, he looks like a tough guy right?
PJ: He-I mean he’s just like–he’s just got like- Everybody, everybody who’s not him is like a little bit like shlumpier. Like, I don’t know, he’s got like a very salon-y haircut. Um, and like his clothes are a little bit more fashionable. Yeah–he just looks like the boss.
ALEX GOLDMAN: -Yeah- Totally.
DAMIANO: So, for weeks, Alex was calling the call center and asking for Kamal. In the meantime, like, I was dying to know more about this call center, Accostings.
[MUSIC] “FORMER EMPLOYEES”
WOMAN: Yeah. Hi Damiano?
DAMIANO: Hi. How are you?
DAMIANO: I started to find former employees who listed Accostings on their Linkedin or Facebook —
Yes, who is this?
DAMIANO: Almost everyone we interviewed said, “I’ll talk, but please don’t use my name.”
DAMIANO: When was it that you worked there?
EMPLOYEE 1: I worked there for two years, uh-working as a service person
EMPLOYEE 1: ..between 2009 to 2011.
DAMIANO: So this guy explained to me that when Alex and I are calling Accostings, most of the people that we’re talking to are super young. Like, this is probably their first job.
EMPLOYEE 1: Most of them are students who belongs to, uh, Eastern, Northeastern part of India, like — you know? They have a–sound knowledge of English. Like uh.. –if compare with any other part of India.
EMPLOYEE 1: Like their accent is quite, uh, understandable I guess so..
DAMIANO: Is it like a poorer part of India, too? And that’s-so it’s easier to recruit people?
EMPLOYEE 1: Yes. Yes. Yes. It is.
DAMIANO: So what happens is like, these kids, they come from these like small rural towns a lot of the time. They get to the big city, and they get what they think is just like a normal, honest job.
EMPLOYEE 2: When I was hired with them, they told me they had a legitimate process with them.
ALEX GOLDMAN: So, when you started they said, “We have a legitimate process with Apple.”
EMPLOYEE 2: That’s right, but, uh, sooner and later, I got to know that this was something, you know, fishy going on.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Did anybody that you worked with- Was anybody that you worked with open about the fact that they were committing fraud, or was everybody–Did everybody just pretend like that wasn’t happening?
EMPLOYEE 2: No there were people who know that this is not good happening, but it’s just that there was no other option to –survive. They have to do it.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Right.
EMPLOYEE 2: Because if they-if they will not do it, then they will have to go back to their hometown — there an- There is no job there.
EMPLOYEE 3: I-I’ll tell you- I’ll tell you the main reason, I mean, the reason why I left that company, because there was a fight for- They were like delaying my salary again and again.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Really? They weren’t paying you?
EMPLOYEE 3: Yeah, this is how–I mean, it’s not with me, it’s–like, they were doing with everybody.
EMPLOYEE 4: The same thing happened with me as well. I did not receive my money. When I asked- I asked them that they, uh, they owe my money and they need to pay me. But they completely say no, that they cannot pay.
EMPLOYEE 2: Man, I can give you all this information but make sure you don’t, you know, disclose my name because, you know, they would be after me if they get to know that, you know, I give you all this information.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Ok, I can keep you anonymous.
EMPLOYEE 2: What I realized later on, you know, when I was in the company for two months, you know, I realized because these guys are–earning good amount of money, okay? So you know, so they can—-you, in terms of, if you go against them or if you tell them, “This is what is going on,” you know? They can really do something harmful against you. —
ALEX GOLDMAN: What do you mean? What-what–What kind of threats did they-they give you?
EMPLOYEE 2: If they get to know, you know, they know that I had given you my information, they have my resume, my home address, –everything. They have my phone number and everything. So, you know, they might, you know, send cops to my place and tell them that I have, you know, stolen their data or their company information and all that stuff.
ALEX GOLDMAN: I see.
ALEX: So, Accostings seems like a pretty precarious place to work. Um, people told us that turnover there’s super high. People are quitting or getting fired all the time. Which explains something that I had been wondering about for a while. Which was Alex Martin, the first guy that we talked to, he had just completely vanished. And, it seemed likely to me that he probably quit or got fired.
DAMIANO: And we learned something else really interesting. Which was that, Accostings, it didn’t start out this way, like it didn’t always-it wasn’t always so sketchy. They actually started the company as like a real tech support company. And they were helping people with their problems, and then like a couple years in it seems like what happened is that they were like, “You know what would be a better way of getting business?” Instead of calling people-like cold calling people and saying, “Hey, maybe you’ll get a virus some time in the future…”
PJ: Say, “You have a virus right now.”
DAMIANO: -Exactly. And, “Pay us $300. Once you pay us to get rid of the virus you supposedly have on your computer, we’ll also support you in the future and be your tech support company.”
PJ: So they are lying, but they are still selling a real product.
DAMIANO: They’re lying- Exactly. It’s just a way of drumming up business.
PJ: –You go from being, like, the local security guard company, to being the guy who is like, “It’d be a shame if anything happened here.”
ALEX GOLDMAN: -It’s- And you know the whole time we thought about this company as being very remote from us. Like a bunch of people in a room, trying to scam us, thousands of miles away. But, we talked to someone who used to work there who made us realize that their reach extends across the globe.
EMPLOYEE 2: So, what they told me that they were taking payments through check in US.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Huh..
EMPLOYEE 2: I know the name of the company on which they were taking these checks, as well. The name of the company is MSS Marketing LLC. And it’s in Pennsylvania.
ALEX GOLDMAN: I called the woman who runs it, and she said, “Yes, I used to take payments for Accostings,” but she claims that she shut MSS Marketing down months ago.
PJ: Interesting. So every time someone gets scammed on the phone by someone in another country, or not, maybe not every time. But basically, if someone tricks you on the phone an-and takes your credit card or whatever, they need to have a confederate who’s actually based in the country that you’re in.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Exactly. And this isn’t just happening in the US. We found these guys who live in Bradford, England who are setting up websites and companies so that they can process money for Accostings in the UK. And it seems like Accostings is making a ton of money. We don’t know exactly how much but based on what a former employee told me, probably in the realm of about two million dollars a year. And the people who are taking my calls, they’re being like intimidated by this company, they’re not making a lot of money, they’re being treated like crap. But, someone like Kamal is probably cleaning up.
PJ: So it’s like basically like every piece of information you learn just makes Kamal like more and more of a cartoon villain character basically, right? Like he is the big bad guy at this point.
ALEX: Exactly, which is why it was so frustrating that we couldn’t get him on the phone no matter how hard we tried. And then, um, executive producer Tim Howard came up with a crazy idea.
PJ: Um, can I tell you what my crazy idea would be?
ALEX GOLDMAN: What?
PJ: To call and just say “This is Kamal.”
ALEX GOLDMAN: (laughs) “Hi, this is Kamal, do I have any messages from Alex Goldman?”
PJ: (laughs) Yeahh! Was that Tim’s Idea?
ALEX GOLDMAN: -So- No.
PJ: What was Tim’s crazy idea?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Tim was like, “You need to throw these guys off-balance a little bit.” Like, “You’re just being too straightforward, they know what to expect from you, they can just hang up on you.”
ALEX GOLDMAN: “Why don’t you take one of the photos you found of them on Facebook, make it your desktop background, and then have them connect to your computer?”
PJ: (laughing) That’s so creepy. That’s great!
ALEX GOLDMAN: -It’s- It’s nuts.
DAMIANO: Wait, so do you remember that — ? Okay.
PJ: -Yeah- So-So when they call, they like, remote in. And they do like the fake like, “You have bergs.” thing or whatever, “You’ve got a Trojan horse.” And so your plan is like, when they remote into your computer, they’re just gonna see like a smiling picture of themselves hanging out (laughing).
ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah, but not just a smiling picture of themselves. It’s a smiling picture of like, their bosses.
PJ: So, this is a very, very funny plan. So what happened?
ALEX GOLDMAN: -Uh- So I call up. And some guy I don’t recognize answers, and we just start going through the routine where he gets on my computer, you know?
MALE VOICE: Your Mac computer is going to connect to our secure server, and after that we are going to run a diagnose on that.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Okay. –A little box showed up in the lower right-hand corner. It says.
MALE VOICE: Yeah. Please, uh, join session. Click on..
ALEX GOLDMAN: Okay!
MALE VOICE: Connect.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Here I go!
MALE VOICE: Yeah. Yes sir.
ALEX GOLDMAN: And then… I minimize everything on my screen, leaving only the picture on the desktop.
MALE VOICE: Now, we are well connected. Okay, Wait a second.
DAMIANO: (laughs) Is he still on your computer? (whispering)
ALEX GOLDMAN: I think he hung up.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Hello!?
MALE VOICE: Be on line, sir. Be on line.
OTHER MALE VOICE: [HINDI]
DAMIANO: (whispering) Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god. What’s he doing on your computer?
MALE VOICE: Be on line. Be on line.
DAMIANO: What’s he doing? My heart is beating so fast.
ALEX MARTIN: –Thank you so much for being online, sir. This –Alexander Martin, How are you doing today?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Hey, Alex Martin! How’s it going?
ALEX MARTIN: I’m doing great, sir. How are you?
ALEX GOLDMAN: I’m good! What’s up?
ALEX MARTIN: I’m doing great, thanks a lot for asking. How is your day going, sir?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Pretty good, thanks!
ALEX MARTIN: Mmm, that’s good. That’s wonderful. —
ALEX GOLDMAN: Is this the Alex Martin that I talked to awhile back? This is Alex Goldman.
ALEX MARTIN: (laughs) Yeah, this is the same Alex Martin, sir. You remember me?
ALEX GOLDMAN: How’s it going, man?! I’ve been trying to get in touch with you for weeks!
ALEX MARTIN: My goodness, I was –out for a week. –I was on Thailand on my vacations.
ALEX GOLDMAN: What have you been up to? Did you- What did you think of my desktop background?
ALEX MARTIN: Oh, who are they? I don’t recognize them. Who are they?
ALEX GOLDMAN: G-Gimme a break. Come on man. I know better than that.
ALEX MARTIN: Seriously? –Like, are-are you one of them? Who are you?
ALEX GOLDMAN: (laughing) So Alex. Dude. I’ve been trying to get in touch with you man. Uh. I’ve been learning a lot about Quick Pc Resolve and, uh, Accostings, InfoTech, and sort of like, people who work there, people who used to work there. But uh, I was worried that you might have gotten canned or something. It’s glad-I’m glad to hear your voice.
ALEX MARTIN: Mmm. So what exactly you want now?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Well, I just wanted to know how were doing first of all. Second of all-
ALEX MARTIN: Yeah, I’m very good.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Second of all– Um-
ALEX MARTIN: What about you, sir?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Well the reason I was trying to reach you is cause I wanted- I wanted to see if you, uh.. You said you played Counter-Strike and you- and I was wondering if you were Steam. Cause if you were on Steam, I could give you my Steam ID. We could play some games together.
ALEX MARTIN: Mm. –No need. You don’t have any work to do, or what?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Up until this point, Alex Martin has always been like interested in me, he w-wants to talk about video games and stuff, and all of a sudden in this moment, he becomes really hostile. And honestly, it kind of threw me off-balance a little bit, like I didn’t know how to proceed.
ALEX GOLDMAN: This is my work! But I mean, you know, when you’re not at work, you said you liked to play video games. I was wondering if you wanted to play some games together.
ALEX MARTIN: What game you like?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Well, let’s see. What do I–Let me just-eh-Let me just bring up my Steam and see what I’ve got going on there.
ALEX MARTIN: Mmm.
ALEX GOLDMAN: You seem angry with me. Are you mad at me?
ALEX MARTIN: Me?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah.
ALEX MARTIN: No, I’m not angry at all. I’m very calm, you know, very calm very cool.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Alright, what have I got here? Uh..
ALEX MARTIN: -The only thing is that I want to find out what exactly you want. That’s what I want to know.
ALEX GOLDMAN: -S- So, I’ve got, uh.. I’ve got Team Fortress 2, Counter-Strike.
ALEX MARTIN: -No, you’re not coming to the point. You know what I’m asking you. I’m asking you what exactly you want.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Well, so, I got a call from this number awhile back. And..
ALEX MARTIN: -Yeah, that was ages before. Yeah, that was ages before.
ALEX: And the-the purpose of that call was to try and s- try and scam me out of money.
ALEX MARTIN: Mm, but you were not scammed, fortunately, yeah?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah, but I know that a lot of other people probably are being scammed?
ALEX MARTIN: Mmm. So what? You are a social worker, or what?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Well no. I’m a journalist.
ALEX MARTIN: Mmm. So, I mean, uh-you don’t have any other companies to find out that are they doing scam or not?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Well, (laughing) no other companies called me, man.
ALEX MARTIN: I’ll give you some names. You can write it down.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Uh, of other companies?
ALEX MARTIN: Yep.
ALEX GOLDMAN: –I mean, I- I’ll be–
ALEX MARTIN: —They’ll be bigger fishes for you, okay? Instead of coming to me, go for them. You’ll get more money from there. Because if you come to me you won’t get anything. So you’re wasting your time.
ALEX GOLDMAN: So he’s saying like, “If you come to me, you won’t get anything. I’m not giving you any money.” And, it, suddenly felt like I was talking to a boss? And then it hit me that I might actually be talking to the boss. Like, what if Alex Martin is Kamal?
PJ: Oh. That is nuts!
ALEX GOLDMAN: So is this Kamal that I’m talking to?
ALEX MARTIN: Yeah, this is Kamal.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Is it really?
ALEX MARTIN: So, you don’t recognize me, or what?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Well how am I supposed to- E-Every time I call I get a different name. How am I supposed to know that this is Kamal?
ALEX MARTIN: Because you know when they came to know that you are the same guy with whom I have already spoken with. So they transferred the call to me, ya know?
ALEX GOLDMAN: And you know, as the conversation went on, he started to refer to things that only Kamal would know. Like.. a few weeks before we made this call, we had our coworker Sruthi try to friend him on Facebook and he brought that up. And I was like, “Oh, this guy that I’m talking to really is Kamal.”
PJ: That is nuts. I can’t even process that.
ALEX GOLDMAN: (laughs)
PJ: So the- Wow!
ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah. I must’ve gotten the floor manager the first time.
PJ: Oh my god.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah.
PJ: No wonder he sounds like so at ease with what he’s doing-you know what I mean?
ALEX GOLDMAN: — And Kamal basically said to me, Kam-Alex, Kamal said to me like, “Look, you need to stop calling during business hours and disrupting my techs. And I was like, “Well what do you want me to do?” And he gave me his number.
ALEX GOLDMAN: He gave me his email address.
ALEX GOLDMAN: And was like, call me back when you–like, call back my number instead of calling my technicians on the floor.
PJ: That’s so funny.
ALEX GOLDMAN: So at this point, it’s the end of March. It’s been about two months since the first call. And.. I started just calling Kamal pretty regularly over the next couple weeks.
PJ: And would he pick up?
ALEX GOLDMAN: He would!
ALEX GOLDMAN: Hey. Kamal? Kamalll… Hello?
KAMAL: Yes. Yes. Your voice is breaking.
PJ: And which Kamal would you get? Would you get the Kamal that’s like jeering at you for being a slovenly American? Would you get the nice Kamal that talks to you about how he’d like to play Counter-Strike?
ALEX GOLDMAN: I got- We got sort of like a laid back, kind of quiet Kamal. It was a very different Kamal then I was used to. He would just sort of answer my questions.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Did you grow up in Delhi?
ALEX MARTIN: No, not at all. Um. I belong to, uh, Punjab. I’m not from Delhi.
ALEX GOLDMAN: What made you move to Delhi in the first place?
ALEX MARTIN: I just want to see the Delhi life. That’s it. I just came here with –friend, and then I thought like, “Let me work here for a few years.” And I work and then I enjoy it and now…[FADES]
ALEX GOLDMAN: I’m honestly not learning that much from Kamal in these conversations, we’re just having sort of idle chit chat. But at the same time, me and Damiano are researching Accostings. And it’s during this time that we realize that Kamal is not actually the boss. Kamal is the boss’s right-hand man. So, here: lemme show you this photo. It’s of uh, them in their new office.
PJ: Oh there are so many employees at this company now.
DAMIANO: That’s the whole team yeah. And the guy at the center, that’s the top boss. It’s a guy named Deepak Verma.
PJ: So the guy who’s wearing like traditional garb?
DAMIANO: -An- And then I think like… literally.. Kamal is his right-hand man.
ALEX: -Yeah–Kamal is immediately to the right of him.
PJ: He’s-eh–He’s actually standing at his right hand.
DAMIANO: Yeah. And so, we start to think, maybe Kamal gave us his personal phone number because he doesn’t want his boss to know that he’s talking to us.
ALEX: And, um, I would say a couple weeks after he gave me his cell phone number, he started saying, “I think–you know I think my time at this company is about to near-is about to come to an end.”
ALEX: How you doing?
KAMAL: Well, not so good these days. I mean, even I’m–Everyone–now switching, you know. No one–So even I’m thinking, planning of doing my own. Thinking that I’ll do something for myself, you know? A small set up or something.
ALEX: Wait, wait. So you. Wait, you’re planning on leaving Accostings?
KAMAL: Yep, yep.
ALEX: And starting your own business..
PJ: When he would say that, did it feel like he wanted to leave the company to go start another scam company? Or was it like I want to leave..maybe I don’t want to scam people anymore.
ALEX GOLDMAN: It never seemed like he didn’t- he had like a particular moral qualm about scamming.
ALEX GOLDMAN: But he did-did seem like he was kinda burnt out.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Why do you want to leave?
KAMAL: It’s just like that I don’t want to work anymore. That’s it. I just want to go village and stay in village. My father, they used to call me every other day. They’d, “Come back. Come back.”
ALEX GOLDMAN: And at first I wasn’t super convinced that he actually wanted to leave. I think he kinda wanted to throw me off the trail.
ALEX GOLDMAN: But then.. You know, I started–I kept calling the call center. And one day a couple months later…
ROBOT: Your call is very important to us. Please stay on the line and you’ll be transferred to the next available agent.
MAN: Thank you for calling Premium Technical Support. My name is Eric. How can I help you today?
ALEX: Yeah. My name’s Alex Goldman. I’m trying to reach Kamal Verma. Is he there?
MAN: Sir, he left the job today.
ALEX: What do you mean he l-
MAN: I’m so sorry sir. He’s not available –actually. He left the job today, sir.
ALEX: So I hung up and I immediately called Kamal and he said, “Yeah. I quit. I moved back in with my parents on their farm.” And he was like, “Look, I moved to the city to see what it was like, to try living a metropolitan life. And I decided that it’s not for me. And what could be better than just hanging out, waking up whenever I want, going to bed whenever I want, and not really having to work?
ALEX: Kamal said that he’d left Accostings on bad terms, which made me think a little differently about something he’d said to me a couple times on the phone.
KAMAL: Any–Anytime when-eh-whenever you come to India, let’s do call me okay.
ALEX: Uh, I might- I might come to-
KAMAL: –if you come-If you visit New Delhi. Yeah, just come- just come for two, three days, and, –I’ll make you visit places like Taj–You know Agra? Nice place to see.
ALEX: Six months ago, I got a phone call from someone pretending to be Apple Computers. And, just through sheer force of will, and I guess a lot of free time, me and Damiano managed to figure out a lot about these people. And now an ex-manager who’d parted on bad terms is inviting me to India. And I asked him, “Hey, now that you don’t work there anymore, will you tell me everything I want to know?” And he said, “Yes.”
AIRPLANE ANNOUNCEMENT: Please keep your seats in an upright position.
ALEX: I mean how could I not go?
[AIRPLANE TAKE-OFF SOUND]
PJ: Next time on Reply All, Alex and Damiano take a trip.
A man takes on an impossible job: fixing the place you go before you die.
PJ VOGT: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m PJ Vogt.
ALEX GOLDMAN: And I’m Alex Goldman.
PJ: And Sruthi’s here with us.
SRUTHI PINNAMANENI: Yes, I am.
PJ: What have you got?
SRUTHI: I have a story for you guys, and this one is about a man named Bill Thomas, he’s a doctor, and he has this very wild story. I went up to Ithaca to meet him, that’s where he lives.
SRUTHI: Hey Bill.
BILL THOMAS : How are ya?
BILL: Good to have you here.
SRUTHI: Yeah, good to see you too, I hope this…
SRUTHI: And he picked me up, uh, he was–he cut an interesting figure–big beard, tie-dyed t-shirt, no shoes.
SRUTHI: Um, I love, are you actually driving barefoot?
BILL: Yeah! Why not?
SRUTHI: Um, and he rolled up in his electric car with his peace-sign bumper sticker, his wife Jude was there.
JUDE: I love to drive, he hates to drive. It shows you my control side.
SRUTHI: And the reason I had come up here to meet Bill, uh, is that he–he’s this like towering figure in the world of nursing homes. He’s known for being this like, incredibly creative person who has spent his life trying to make nursing homes better.
PJ: Uh huh.
SRUTHI: And now he’s decided that he wants to destroy them all.
SRUTHI: (laughs) So the first thing I said was, “Hey can we go see a local nursing home? I want to see what you see.” And he said, “Sure, I’m not exactly welcome inside, but we can do that.”
BILL: I’ve been to this one. We make noises…
SRUTHI: He jumps in the passenger seat. Jude’s driving. I’m in the back.
BILL: Stop! Back up if you can, Jude. Alright, listen. Here’s the thing. We’re in the parking lot. Watch it, Jude! Looking at your thing–we’re in the parking lot of a nursing home. And it deserves to go away. Um, and I’m not even gonna get you out, because if they see you out here with headphones on, they’ll freak out.
SRUTHI: Oh, really?
BILL: Oh yes. So what we have is a 1960s-era brick building.
JUDE: And this lady is looking at us all the window.
BILL: Uh huh. Oh yes. That has not been changed in any substantial way in 50 years. Now, look here, this is an activity, we’re looking in, we’re driving by…
SRUTHI: We’re looking into the window of this activity room, and it’s empty and there are these cheesy cardboard decorations.
SRUTHI: I see butterflies, they have butterflies!
BILL: It is butterfly time.
SRUTHI: There’s a Memorial Day. I see some flags for Memorial Day.
BILL: Exactly. Memorial Day. Every holiday has a ritualized cardboard representation. And the reason I bring that up is because it’s like that with the food and with everything.
Inside this building, nothing is real.
PJ: What’s he so mad about?
SRUTHI: He means that basically here’s a building where everybody inside, like everybody who is living here is really unhappy, but there’s all this like pageantry of happiness and joy.
BILL: People are compelled to inhabit roles that are totally artificial. So, if I moved in here tomorrow, my, the fullness of my personality would be shaved off. I’m Dr. Thomas, author of these books. I move in there, and the lowest-ranking staff member has total authority over me. And can make me do anything.
BILL: That’s true. So–we’re in the front of this building now. And when people come to live here they go in through that door. When they die, they go out through the loading dock door in the back.
SRUTHI: Oh, okay.
BILL: So when a person moves in here, the great likelihood is that they will never leave again. In physics we have a name for that: black hole.
SRUTHI: Bill says that this black hole, this is what he’s been fighting his entire life. You know, he’s come up with these ingenious innovations, and every single one of them has failed. And the whole process has turned him into this like radical, desperate person, but that’s not how he started. Back when he first got into the nursing home game he was a young idealist.
It was 1991. He’d just turned 30. He was done with his medical residency and he moved to the middle of nowhere, upstate New York, he was homesteading, like building a house and raising animals. And the closest place that he could get a job was a nursing home. They were looking for a medical director and Bill said, “How hard could this be?”
BILL: I brought all of my sort of turbo-ER-new-resident-Harvard-doctor stuff to the nursing home. So I’m running around trying to get everybody cured of everything.
BILL: And there was this wonderful director of nursing, who was like, “Come here, come into my office.” Sat me down and just said to me: “You’re hurting people,” you know? You’re ordering too many tests, and you’re sending people out for too many x-rays. Settle down.”
SRUTHI: Because he’s treating everybody as a case that he can like, cure.
PJ: Like, you’ve got old age! Get over here!
SRUTHI: (laughs) Exactly. And Bill, he actually takes this nursing director’s advice, to settle down, and he starts coming to the nursing home, on his days off, like when there’s nothing to do. And he shows up with a notebook, and he says that he would park himself in a room and just like, take notes of whatever he was seeing.
BILL: And I remember, you know, sitting in what used to be called the solarium, which was really a room with windows in it (laughs). But sitting in the solarium, and you know, 10 AM, I would just say, “Mr. Smith is sitting a wheelchair across from me; 10:30, Mr. Smith is sitting in a wheelchair across from me. 11 o’clock…” This man was like, suspended in time, just waiting for the next thing to happen.
SRUTHI: Everywhere that Bill looked, he just saw loneliness, helplessness. Like, he’d see a woman just waiting for someone to wheel her to lunch and she’s sitting there under the hum of fluorescent lights, there’s no actual conversation between people. And it’s just the noises of a hospital, like, the beeping of medical devices.
BILL: A steady din of people calling out sort of instructions and commands to each other, overhead paging. I started to think of the nursing home almost a strange kind of spaceship that was traveling outside of the earthly biosphere, it was just humans and their machines. That’s all it was. And you could, you know, the–it was the absence of the sound of insects or birds or wind or rain. I mean there was no indication, no auditory indication that this place was even on the, our same planet, really.
I felt a powerful sense that even though the people I was working with, I respected them, they were good at their jobs, the system I was immersed in was not good for elders or other living things.
SRUTHI: Bill thinks: all these people living here, they’re just so cut off from the world that I come from, the world that’s just alive and exciting, and so he comes up with this plan to just shake things up. He applies for a government grant, and when they ask him what he needs the money for, he says, “Animals.”
BILL: Four dogs, eight cats.
BILL: Four hundred birds.
SRUTHI: Why 400?
BILL: Well, it’s healthier to have a pair of parakeets in a cage.
BILL: Yes, now you see where this is going, yes.
BILL: You can’t just have one–it’s not fair really to the parakeets, so.
SRUTHI: Back then, in New York State, you couldn’t, you were not allowed to have more than one animal per facility, so that means like one dog or one cat.
PJ: Well they don’t have a birdaterium–like I don’t know what the room, that are like they don’t have a bird–not like a birdhouse but like a bird house in a zoo.
ALEX: Like an–
SRUTHI: Uh, you mean–an aviary.
PJ: Sorry I didn’t know the word aviary, guys!
ALEX: It’s cool, a birdaterium–it’s good–good enough for me.
SRUTHI: (laughs) And, I’m like–so by, by some like, some miracle or some oversight, they approve his application. And so he goes out and orders these animals and he also puts up an ad in a local newspaper.
SRUTHI: Do you remember what the ad said?
JUDE: I do indeed. It said, “If you love plants, animals, and children, this job is for you! Apply at Chase Nursing Home.” And, of course, I was absolutely certain that they had messed up two ads, one for a nursing home and one for like, some kind of animal shelter. And so I think perhaps that really stirred my curiosity more than anything.
SRUTHI: Bill ends up hiring this woman, Jude Meyers, as a nurse. And their big day arrives. They were waiting outside the nursing home when the birdman shows up with this giant van.
BILL: He shows up and we’re like, “Great the birds are here!” And you know we had arranged, the cages arrive. And the nice bird man is like, “Where do you want them?” And we’re like, “What do you mean, where do we want them?” And he’s like, “I’ve got to drop him off. You know we can’t, can’t keep them here. They gotta come inside.” So we took the beauty shop at the nursing home and we just let all of the birds loose in the beauty shop.
SRUTHI: What about the cages?
BILL: They all arrived flat–in flat boxes. They all had to be assembled. We didn’t know this. I don’t know why I thought the bird cages would come assembled but they didn’t. So you’d have them–you’d have to take out, open the box, assemble the bird cage, open the door to the beauty room, and go in. (laughs) This is not–I am not kidding. Go in. Get two birds, male and female was best, so.
BILL: Get two parakeets, get them into the cage, come out. What happened, and this
was one of the very first signs we knew we were on to something, so the beauty, like a lot of nursing homes, the beauty room, salon, has these glassy doors and you can see in. Well the elders started coming and laughing their heads off.
SRUTHI: Bill and Jude told me that the residents themselves were actually changing. Like, Jude described this one man who hadn’t spoken for months, and how he would sit in the cafeteria near a group of ladies that just loved to talk about their birds.
JUDE: And these three women who all had birds, would talk day after day, “My bird…”
JUDE: And I think the man just realized that he was missing out on something really awesome. And so, he was able to articulate to a nurse in the hall one day on the
way back from a meal: “I want a bird.”
SRUTHI: How–do you remember how he articulated it?
JUDE: Verbally, he was able to say that.
JUDE: And then he would talk to the bird. There’s–there’s dozens of stories like that.
SRUTHI: Bill and Jude were so excited about all these things they were seeing, and they decide to give this whole project a name. They call it “The Eden Alternative.”
PJ: But, so, like, in the movie version of this there’s like a stern disciplinarian who is like–
ALEX: Yeah, there’s a Nurse Ratchett.
PJ: Who is like, “Hey now!” Was there that dynamic?
SRUTHI: Yeah. He said people were of course, some of them were upset about the extra work. He got one call in the middle of the night, a nurse who was like, “The dog has taken a shit in the middle of the TV room. I am going to put a chair over it so you can deal with it in the morning.”
ALEX: (laughs) That’s messed up.
SRUTHI: Well he says the reason that he didn’t have a full-scale mutiny is because pretty soon it became clear that it wasn’t just like, fun and games.
BILL: Hang on one second. [door opens]
SRUTHI: He showed me this graph which I found completely incredible.
BILL: I have not looked at this in many years. Look at the death rate that happened at the Eden–where we were doing Eden.
SRUTHI: So, it’s dropping precipitously.
BILL: Precipitously. Now I just want to say as a physician–you never get that. Never–it’s never like that. It’s always like oh it’s a little better we’re doing a little better. This is like a death rate is dropping off a cliff.
SRUTHI: These people just keep on living! And Bill says they’re using less meds, like 30 percent less medication.
ALEX: Just because of the pets?
SRUTHI: Well you know, Bill says that it’s not about the animals per se, it’s more about like this thing that they bring to the nursing home, which is just–almost randomness and excitement.
BILL: If our lives lack enough spontaneity, it–it loses its tang. It loses that sweet edge that comes from talking about that thing that happened, that nobody thought was going to happen. And nursing homes, actually the best of them, are extremely good at wiping out spontaneity–crushing it. And so when you see a person at a nursing home station where they’re kind of slumped over and everybody is doing their thing, that elder has the potential to be sitting up and looking around. The reason they’re not sitting up and looking around is there’s–there’s no cause.
SRUTHI: Bill feels like he’s figured out this really big thing. And he ends up, you know, doing this same experiment in a few other nursing homes, has the same results, and suddenly there’s all these like news crews showing up.
ARCHIVAL NEWS: True to its name, the Eden Alternative floods a nursing home with a life. “Want to play with her a minute, Rica?” “It’s not like the animals aren’t in a certain place. They are everywhere. We have one dog that knows how to operate the elevator now.”
SRUTHI: Bill and Jude actually end up going on the road with their ideas. And you know, a lot of times when they go visit a nursing home, it’s like Beatlemania. Like, people just love them. And these are some of the best years of Bill’s life. He and Jude fall in love, they get married, they have kids. And they’re travelling the country.
JUDE: We were so thrilled–we thought that whoever grasped a hold of this
concept could take this, and take it back to their home, and make a difference.
SRUTHI: And in that first heady year, they said a thousand nursing homes, like, more than a thousand, joined their Eden revolution. And it felt like a surprisingly easy victory, until…
JUDE: But we would have people who would say, “Oh my gosh, we walked in there, and if this is what Eden’s about, no thank you!”
JUDE: People didn’t want to do the down and dirty, really make the meaning stick.
SRUTHI: So they would, they would say, “Yeah we got a, we got a cocker spaniel,” you know? “And we, we like take them from room-to-room, once a day. Everyday.”
PJ: From 1 PM to 2 PM.
ALEX: Chaos isn’t chaos if it’s planned.
SRUTHI: Yeah. Exactly. And so at this point Bill is like, “We’re right back where we started!” You know people are dying who don’t have to be, people are sad and lonely, they don’t have to be. And so, he thinks, let’s just change the whole nursing home itself. Like, we can stop warehousing people. In 1999 he comes up with this utopic version of what a nursing home could be, and it’s basically a place that feels like home.
BILL ON INFOMERCIAL: This is a Green House, and it’s designed to be like a house…
SRUTHI: There’s this video where he’s showing a model of this greenhouse that he built in Mississippi.
BILL ON INFOMERCIAL: …wonderful porch. Great front yard. You can imagine it in the summer time with the flowers in bloom…
SRUTHI: It just looks like a suburban home, there’s a garden where people can hang out. You go inside, there’s like a hearth that you can sit around, it’s like Brady Bunch house.
ALEX: How many people are living there?
SRUTHI: So Bill says between 10-12 people, that’s it.
SRUTHI: So that’s the thing that’s going to actually let you be human in this house. And he spends 15 years trying to get these kinds of nursing homes built. Some of them are.
TAMMY MARSHALL: Every home has a mezuzah, which has a prayer inside…
SRUTHI: I actually went to see one of them, it’s in West Chester, Upstate New York.
TAMMY: So, right away it doesn’t look like a traditional nursing home.
SRUTHI: Yeah, there’s music!
SRUTHI: And the reason I’d gone was to meet this woman, Luisa.
SRUTHI: Hi, Luisa!
SRUTHI: Luisa is 78, she had just moved into the Green House, like very recently, about six months ago, and before that, she told me she was living on her own, in Florida.
LUISA: And I was living all by myself. I drove. I cleaned. I washed. I did everything myself, I had no–I was just normal. And one night I got up from the sofa and I just don’t know how one foot went in front of the other one, I fell forward with my head into the wall. And snapped my spine.
SRUTHI: Luisa had surgery after surgery, ended up losing the use of her arms and her legs, and that’s how she ended up here.
LUISA: It’s been very hard. I don’t know how to sit doing nothing. It hurts. The first couple months, this was horrible. I used to run to the room and cry.
SRUTHI: This Green House, you know, this special nursing home that Luisa lives in, it’s a really nice place. For a nursing home. You know, there’s a really attentive staff, she has her own room. Um, but–the only thing she really thinks about, she says, is her own home. Like, she just renovated her kitchen, and she just keeps thinking, like, this is not the place that I was supposed to end up in.
LUISA: Want to hear something strange? Same thing to happen to my mother happened to me. Fell. Couldn’t walk. Became quadriplegic. And I had to find a place to place her. And I really never–never ever in my life did I feel that something like this would happen to me.
LUISA: What am I going to do? It’s happening to me! No–no choice whatsoever.
PJ: It’s just weird. It makes me realize that everybody thinks everybody else is going to a nursing home, nobody feels like they’re the person. Like everybody feels like they’re always going to be able, they’re always going to be fine.
SRUTHI: Yeah, it’s something that you reserve for The Other, right? But, you know, the thing about Bill, is that he doesn’t have that, like advantage. Like he’s never been able to ignore the reality of existence in a nursing home, because Bill and Jude, had, back in the ’90s, they had two daughters, Haleigh Jane and Hannah, and both of them were born with this very rare neurological syndrome.
BILL: Haleigh and Hannah were born with something that’s given the name Ohtahara Syndrome, where the young people are born with cortical blindness, meaning they can’t see, constant seizures, the inability to move their body.
One of the great ironies of life is that I, before Hannah and Haleigh were born, had already committed to to a titanic struggle on behalf, for my part, of people who were very frail and vulnerable, many of whom who could not speak or move or talk to you. And then Haleigh and Hannah were born and in essence two frail elders moved into my house. And not children, not changing, not growing in that way. And it was almost as if, karmically, it was like, “Well, let’s make sure that you don’t forget how important this is.” (laughs)
SRUTHI: When I talked to Bill about the Green House, he said, “Yeah, it didn’t change things the way I wanted it to.” But for him and Jude, there is no way out. And so they said, “You know what, we’ve tried Eden, we’ve tried the Green House. Nothing worked, so screw it. The only way to fix this is by breaking it.”
PJ: After the break, Bill’s last, desperate shot.
SRUTHI: So Bill’s grand plan that he’s come up with to abolish the nursing home system, it’s motivated by his two daughters. A couple years ago Hannah, his younger daughter, she died from complications and Bill was completely heartbroken. And he says he just poured all his time into thinking about how to make life better for his other daughter, Haleigh Jane. She lives with him, actually she has her own apartment which when you walk into his home there’s a door to the right that goes into her place.
JUDE: Hi Janers!
BILL: So, I want to just introduce you to Haleigh Jane.
BILL: This is Haleigh Jane’s apartment, and Haleigh Jane, my friend Sruthi!
BILL: Came to visit. Oh, and your hair’s still wet.
SRUTHI: She’s 23, looks young. And she was, at that moment, kind of staring off into space. She was in a brace that was essentially forcing her to stand up.
BILL: Standing up helps because it helps her circulation, it’s like a–
SRUTHI: So it’s like, oh I see, so it’s not a chair, it’s a stand-up.
BILL: Yeah, they call it a stander.
SRUTHI: Most kids with Ohtahara die very young, like before they’re even two years old. The fact that Haleigh Jane is in her early twenties is extraordinary. And Bill thinks that part of the reason might be because of the fact that they’ve been able to keep her at home, out of institutions. You know, they take her to the lake house on the weekends, he plays her guitar. They’ve been able to give her, like build this custom life for her to keep her comfortable. And BIll worries that if he and Jude are what’s making this work, then what happens when they’re gone?
SRUTHI: You know, after Hannah’s death, I wonder if you guys were even more worried about what would happen to Haleigh, like if something happened to you guys, do you feel like, “Oh!”
BILL: Sruthi, it terrifies me so much. I cannot speak of it. And I will speak of a lot of things, but if something happens to Jude and I… Uh–that, that’s not a road I’m ready to go down. ‘Cause, you know, we, Jude and I, want to make sure somebody like Haleigh has a choice or has options, and isn’t condemned to an institution. And that gives the minka a great urgency for us.
SRUTHI: So, the minka.
ALEX: OK. What’s the minka?
SRUTHI: So Bill’s big final idea, the minka, which is essentially a house. It’s a small, special house that Bill has designed for one person to live in if they can’t live in their own home. So say they’ve had a fall, it’s actually very expensive to take a regular home and make it accessible. You have to add ramps, you have to change the entire bathroom. So the idea is, here’s a tiny accessible house. Here, let me show you a blueprint. It looks like a tiny –
PJ: It’s neat.
SRUTHI: What an IKEA house would look like.
PJ: Totally. I was going say it looks like a Swedish, you’d be out on like the grounds of a beautiful like modernist space and then you’d just like find this little. It looks, it’s like bigger than a big sauna.
SRUTHI: Yeah, exactly. And Bill took me through his plan.
BILL: So this house is for Haleigh Jane, so there’s a small ramp that’s like built into the earth here. And then this is on a slab. She comes into the house, kind of a sitting area, a small kitchen. Really, honestly what many people would recognize as a studio apartment. But instead of it being a studio apartment, it’s your house. And you can put it where you want and live where you want.
SRUTHI: So Bill’s basically thinking, this is for Haleigh Jane, but it could be customized for anybody. Like say someone who’s older, needs an accessible space. And they can just plop it, say, I don’t know, in their backyard.
ALEX: I’m I’m– My question is, I think about my relatives who are reaching the age at which they need to have round the clock care. And, and this to me just feels like being isolated in a tiny little hut in your backyard. What is the draw for the person who would be living there?
SRUTHI: The idea is basically you can have your own small space and also just live right by your family. You know when he actually was telling me about the minka I thought about Luisa, the woman that I met in the Green House, the nursing home. Because she had mentioned to me that when she first had her big fall and was in a wheelchair, her daughter wanted to put her in her house. And Luisa didn’t want to go there even though she’s close to her daughter because she didn’t want to be a burden. And I feel like that’s a completely understandable feeling.
SRUTHI: And the alternative would have been, like if the minka is a thing, you can create this little space for a person where they can live with their family but not be in that person’s house.
ALEX: It’s sort of like, it’s sort of like the apartment above the garage. But. But wheelchair accessible.
SRUTHI: Yeah exactly. Exactly. But in order for this whole plan to work, the minka–you know Bill has to figure out how to mass produce this like customizable thing. And the way he’s hit upon to do this is by 3D printing the minkas.
ALEX: That makes it sound like it’s made of like very cheap polymer that will fall over if you touch it lightly.
SRUTHI: Uh, It’s not. I actually saw it being printed.
SRUTHI: So what pieces is it printing right now?
BILL: We’re printing out, looks like roof rib pieces…
SRUTHI: So the way it works is there’s just regular old construction plywood, all this like insulation foam. And he went online and bought like $15,000 worth of 3D printing equipment, which takes the plywood and foam and like cuts his blueprint designs into it.
PJ: And then does it assemble like Lincoln Logs?
[MACHINE TURNS OFF]
SRUTHI: But the thing that really stumped me about this whole plan of his is the cost of it. Bill said that the minka, to buy the materials to print it, and to have it installed, it would cost $75,000. That doesn’t include the cost of home care which I assumed would be very expensive. So the whole thing seemed pretty prohibitive. And I just wanted to understand like who could possibly afford to do this. And so I called Tammy Marshall who is the Chief Experience Officer at The New Jewish Home, which is the Green House-style nursing home where Luisa lives.
SRUTHI: You obviously deal with people every day who’ve had to leave their homes for whatever reason.
TAMMY: Every hour.
SRUTHI: Every hour. And the question is like for who would this minka have been a good alternative?
TAMMY: Well there isn’t anybody here that needed to be here. I could literally close this. I mean there’s people here that don’t belong here. You know that have been here–this, all that we’re doing here can be done in your home.
SRUTHI: Exactly. I mean here is the person who runs a nursing home and she’s saying, “You know what, everybody could be in their home, a minka, whatever.” Like, “Nobody has to be here.” And it’s so crazy to hear that because I think I always assumed that nursing homes existed because they’re cheaper or more efficient. And what I’ve learned is that they’re not they’re actually very, very expensive. They’re far more expensive than home care.
TAMMY: Just think about this. I mean when you’re in a nursing home the average certified nurse assistant who works in the institution–this is always what just blows my mind–they’re paid $15 to $17 an hour. It’s not a huge wage and they’re doing good work. If I’m a home care aide, a home health aide, I’m making $10 to $11 an hour.
TAMMY: Yes. They make almost nothing and they’re schlepping all over, they’re in people’s homes, but their wages are gouged compared to the person who works in the institution. But who’s profiting from that, my dear?
SRUTHI: But wait. So so you’re saying– so, so why don’t more people do home care then? Is it because–
ALEX: Why have we stumbled upon such an incredibly broken system and that is the one we’ve chosen?
SRUTHI: It gets wilder! So nursing homes take up a huge chunk of Medicaid costs. So, in New York State, your average nursing home bed costs $135,000 a year. And you know that feeds a lot of different types of companies, there’s like pharmaceutical companies, food companies. You know, it’s just, it’s just a giant system.
PJ: The nursing home industrial complex.
SRUTHI: That’s exactly what people called it. I didn’t want to say it because it sounds a bit…
PJ: Well it’s not a conspiracy to be like, we’ve built up a lot of systems. Maybe they weren’t a good idea, but now they have stakeholders. It’s like a bunch people who are like, “You’re telling me that I need to shutter my company so you can build a bunch of houses in your backyard? I don’t think so.”
SRUTHI: Yeah like you have against all of this you have one Bill.
PJ: One Bill. Yeah.
SRUTHI: With his crappy 3D printer.
PJ: The guy with the parakeets? Like he’s going to do it? Like no.
SRUTHI: Yeah I mean, you know but Bill is actually pretty optimistic.
SRUTHI: Can–like do you think the nursing home system, like do you really think it can be broken? Do you really think you can beat them?
BILL: Yes. And I’ll tell you why. Go get the data that shows you the number of nursing homes in America–
SRUTHI: I know the number, I think it’s some 15,000 something.
BILL: Yeah. Used to be 19,000.
BILL: Yeah. 4,000 have already closed.
SRUTHI: This is actually true. You know, it’s not happening quickly, but every year more people are finding a way to get out of the system.
BILL: And the reason I believe that my abolitionist dream will come to pass is, nobody’s going to go on a crash program to rebuild america’s nursing homes. (laughs) So we’re at the end of an era, and it’s our job to figure out what comes next.
[MACHINE STARTING UP]
BILL: Power up, here we go.
SRUTHI: Bill thinks that his minka is going to be the first of many better options…
MAN BUILDING MINKA: …don’t lose your fingers on the last panel…
SRUTHI: …but this minka…
SRUTHI: …he calls it minka number one…
MAN BUILDING MINKA: …down she goes…
SRUTHI: …it’s for Haley Jane…
BILL: …and right now we’re getting ready to put in the last panel of this minka to make it complete…
SRUTHI: …and the idea is she’s going to be there, she’s going to have full time nursing care. And no matter what happens to Bill and Jude, it’ll be hers.
JUDE: We’re ready!!
JUDE: Please go “ka-ching.”
JUDE: Yay!! Wow! Awesome! Last panel!
PJ: Sruthi Pinnamaneni is Reply All’s senior reporter.
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’s Tim Howard. More editorial help this week from Jorge Just and Pat Walters. Production assistance from Sherina Ong. We were mixed by Rick Kwan and Matthew Boll.
Special thanks to Jules Beal, Sheryl Zimmerman, David Grabowski and Zach Thomas. Also Sruthi says if you want to read more about aging and the medical system, she really loved Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal. Go check it out.
Matt Lieber is a book you read in one sitting.
Reply All is now available on Spotify, go check us out there. You can also listen to the show on Google Play, Apple Podcasts, wherever you listen. Thanks for listening, we’ll see you soon.
To find all our sponsors and show-related promo codes, click here.