March 14, 2019

#138 The Great Momo Panic

by Reply All

Background show artwork for Reply All

We investigate the mystery of why parents across the world became convinced that a half-bird/half-woman monster was going to harm their kids over the internet.

And we answer the question of how robocallers are able to fake your telephone number when they call you.

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VIDEO: [news intro music] Live from the News Station. This is Seven News at seven. 

NEWS ANCHOR 1: A highly disturbing internet challenge is daring children to do dangerous things, including attempting suicide. This is called the Momo Challenge. 

So if you’re not a parent with small children, it’s possible haven’t heard of Momo–in that case you just need to know she’s the new Internet bogeyman who’s scaring parents everywhere.

NEWS 1: This terrifying face is circulating the web…

NEWS 2: This is Momo with bulging eyes a chilling smile and jet black hair on a bird’s body.

This creature supposedly killing children over the internet

In one version of the story, Momo messages your kid, gets them to do an escalating series of dares, and in the final one she tells them to commit suicide.

In the other, Momo just tells your kid to commit suicide after suddenly appearing in the middle of an otherwise normal YouTube video.

NEWS 2: The palm beach county school district is taking action to keep your kids safe. They’re temporarily blocking YouTube after the Momo Challenge is causing big concern…

So the good news is that very little of this story seems to be actually true. The image of the person who is supposed to be called momo. It’s actually a snapshot of a random japanese special effects sculpture called motherbird. And the idea that Momo has appeared in videos telling kids to kill themselves, or even that any kids have died or been harmed, there’s no actual evidence of this. 

But that part of the story, the lack of evidence, tends to get very underplayed in all the terrifying  news coverage of Momo. 

MALE BRITISH VO: You or someone close to you may have had the misfortune to encounter this charmless character online in recent days. It’s apparently known as “Momo,” 

PJ: That is the BBC. The BBC! And it’s not just them.

INTERNATIONAL NEWS VIDEOS: Here in Canada, police in Ontario and Quebec have also issued warnings about it in the past… And this is the Momo challenge…Le defit Momo, le Momo challenge…[tagalong] the Momo challenge

For months it’s just felt like the Momo story was impossible to ignore. Unless you’re me, I did just ignore it. Because to me, it was just like, “Oh, this is a thing that parents of young kids have convinced themselves over, they’re very scared, they used to be scared of things like satanic death metal, this is going to pass, too.” The thing is though, it hasn’t passed. 

And this week, I decided I wanted to know why. And so, I called up Katie Notopoulos, she's a reporter for BuzzFeed News. She’s also just an expert on every weird hoax on the Internet. 

KATIE NOTOPOULOS: From my perspective, the Momo Challenge has spread in a wild way I have not seen any other type of misinformation spread so rapidly.

PJ: Really?

KATIE: And so wide and like to such a broad, um, swath of people, and I think that that’s what’s sorta unique about it. Like Kim Kardashian is instagramming about it.

PJ: Kim Kardashian shared the Momo thing?

KATIE: yea 

PJ: I thought Katie would tell me that she found Momo ridiculous, the same way I did. But she didn’t. Katie’s a mom, she has a two-year-old. And she told me the reason all these parents were so scared wasn’t because they were naive, it was because they’d seen some shit. They had spent time part of the internet that is dark and seedy. 

YouTube For Kids.

[Baby Shark music]

PJ: So, you might’ve already heard this, it’s called “Baby Shark” it is the big viral hit of kids YouTube lately, uh it’s fine, it’s harmless, it’s also very popular.  It has over 2.4 billion views. It has its own  R&B remix.

[I’m the baby, that’s my mommy, that’s my daddy, we’re all sharks. Baby Shark, baby 

shark” Remix music] 

KATIE: Yeah, I think “Baby Shark” like sort of, I mean, it was just weirdly like wildly popular, and it was the kind of like earworm that like, ah, you know, I have to say, it’s kinda catchy. 

PJ: So the thing I didn’t know is that apparently on kids YouTube, “Baby Shark” is actually pretty highbrow. Like top tier stuff. 

Katie said once you move away you move away from that and things gets way junkier and way stranger.

There’s this whole section where–it almost feels like you tried to take your family on a vacation to Disneyland, you took a wrong turn, and you ended up at this weird counterfeit amusement park that’s right next door. So,  for instance, videos like this one. 

VIDEO sound

Where there’s an adult man dressed in an off-brand Spiderman costume and he’s playing house in a really creepy way with an adult woman dressed up in an as Elsa from Frozen. Except, unlike in the movie, this Elsa is pregnant and giving birth. There’s other videos like this where the Spiderman would actually inject Elsa with some mysterious liquid. Apparently kids liked this, adults found it really creepy. 

KATIE: Those have kind of gone away. I think YouTube kind of cracked down on them because they’re like kind of too messed up, um, and now there’s a lot of those that still exist in like sort of CGI animation. Um Spiderman and Elsa and the Incredible Hulk and Mickey Mouse will be like driving dump trucks and learning about colors just set to music, and like, they just drive a dump truck through like a giant bucket of paint. 

I mean, it’s interesting to see how much the kind of weird crap on there really does like tickle their brains in the right places.

And like, they crave it. Like, they’re like, “Yes. I must watch these terrible animations of just colors moving or like a kid just unboxing a toy,” you know?

PJ: YouTube generates an estimated 10 billion a year in ad revenue. And kids programming is a big part of that. The highest paid youtube star last year had a channel where he unboxed toys, like Legos. 

KID:  We are going to do what’s inside the box challenge.

PJ: He made 22 million dollars. He’s 7 years old. 

KID: I’m gonna beat daddy… no i’m the master.

So there’s a lot of money to be made if you can find a way to attract a bunch of young subscribers and cater to their tiny, evolving attention spans. Which means that the giant invisible mass of people who are always trying to cheaply make money on the internet, a bunch of them have now stampeded over to Kids YouTube.

BLIPPI VIDEO: [music] So much to learn about. It’ll make you want to shout. Blippi!

PJ: So this is Blippi. Katie did a story about him. He’s kind of got kind of a mime vibe, except he wears a bright blue shirt and bright orange suspenders and these huge fake glasses without lenses in them. His videos, which are about like pizza and fire trucks, get millions of views. 

BLIPPI: Hey! This looks like a hammer right? [banging while laughing maniacally]

KATIE: Um, but behind the scenes, the guy is also a guy who the year before he created the children’s character, he was trying to be like, a viral gross-out guy, and he like, had a viral video where he shat on his friend and stuff.

PJ: Wait, really?

KATIE: Yeah. He made um, a Harlem—do you remember the Harlem Shake meme? 

Where it was like a clip of a techno song where it sort of starts out soft, and then the beat drops, and the song changes. And the videos would be sort of two phases where it would start off with like one person dancing sort of by themselves, and then as soon as the beat dropped, it would be like a whole room full of people like in crazy costumes dancing all funny?

PJ: Yeah.

KATIE: So he made a Harlem Shake meme where he, it starts out with like, him dancing on the toilet by himself. And then, you know, when the beat drops, his friend appears, and they’re both like, totally nude, and he takes a shit on his friend.

PJ: Wow.

KATIE: Like, a giant explosive diarrhea shit.

PJ: Wow.

KATIE: And like, it’s honestly like, an incredibly funny video. Um, like–

PJ: (laughs)

KATIE: It’s the best Harlem, like, by far, the absolute funniest Harlem Shake meme I’ve ever seen in my life.

PJ: (laughs)

KATIE: But, you know, he made that in February, and by the next January, he had started this Blippi character who now has videos, like, they’re wildly–like you know, he has videos that get just like hundreds and millions of views.

PJ: And to be clear, Katie actually thinks that Blippi’s probably harmless. To her, he’s just an example of how there’s absolutely no vetting process for who gets to have an audience of millions of kids.  

What actually does feel scary are these other videos that are also popular with kids, although they’re further out on the fringe from Blippi. These are videos that are aimed at kids where the content is not stupid, mindless fun, where it’s actually designed to disturb them. 

Where they’d see stuff like–real kids getting bound and gagged by an adult man, or a video where a kid gets stuffed into a washing machine by a guy in a clown mask, or another one that’s just a kid in a dentist chair with a mouth full of blood. 

YouTube finally cracked down on this particular genre of video after Buzzfeed wrote about it. But not before they’d already racked up tens of millions of views. 

KATIE: There had also been, another sort of YouTube for kids scandal, where it was discovered that there was this sort of pedophile ring running on YouTube, where they would, um, find videos that had been uploaded from young girls, um, where, you know, maybe they would just be like, hanging out in their bedroom, but there would be like one shot where, you know, they would be slightly, uh, they would be in like revealing clothing or something.

PJ: Uh huh.

KATIE: And the pedophiles would all comment it, like, with the timestamp of that exact moment in the comments.

PJ: Oh–

KATIE: To sort of signal to each other like, “Hey, fast-forward to, you know, 3 minutes and 10 seconds.” Um, and that there was, these videos would all sort of recommend to each other. Um, so there was this whole panic about pedophiles on YouTube.

PJ: And was that a thing that was really happening?

KATIE: That was a thing that was really happening.

PJ: Oh wow.

KATIE: Yeah.

PJ: YouTube’s response to this was to delete the comments, ban the accounts that made them, and actually in most cases to just make it so videos aimed at kids couldn’t have comments at all. 

But so, if you're a parent who just sometimes wants to put their kid in front of YouTube so you can send one email this is the world of things that you now have to worry about. In fact, the part of the Momo story that I found least credible, which was the detail about how kids were seeing otherwise normal Youtube videos that where spliced in at some point would be someone telling them to harm themselves... something like that did happen in real life. 

KATIE: So there actually was, like, a real news story of people, like trolls, who had spliced in instructions of like, how to harm yourself in the middle of kids videos. Um, and–  

PJ: That had actually happened?

KATIE: Yes. So that had actually happened and there was like news reports of this just a few days before the Momo thing. 

PJ: I actually looked up this video. It’s really disturbing. It’s a couple of minutes of just animated characters waddling around and then a guy walks across the screen, stands in the middle, and mimes holding a knife over his arm. He says to the camera.

MAN’S VOICE: Remember kids…

PJ: Remember kids.

MAN’S VOICE: Sideways for attention…

PJ: Sideways for attention.

MAN’S VOICE: Longways for results… 

PJ: Longways for results.

MAN’S VOICE: End it.

PJ: End it.

KATIE: And then, a few days later, a very similar version of this story pops up, but this time it’s this hideous bird lady, named Momo, who is telling kids to hurt themselves. 


So, Momo apparently came to the U.S. from Latin America. 


PJ: So what was happening was, kids were going on WhatsApp and they were sending each other pictures of Momo, saying that Momo was this monster and you had to do whatever she said. Somehow that got turned into the idea that kids were committing suicide because of Momo. Never proven, but parents freaked out. The police got involved. The media got involved, and then somehow, that image went from Latin American internet and TV over to American Reddit. 

From Reddit, it went to 4chan. 

And Katie’s best guess is that that’s where it happened,. 

She thinks it’s possible trolls could have intentionally taken that rumor and spread it to parents on Facebook because it would be funny to watch them freak out. 

KATIE: I can imagine the, you know, the teenage boys on a Discord server, like private chat room, and they’re laughing and, you know, I’m defensive because I am a mom. Like, “Hey, don’t make fun of moms!” Or like, I get it that like, Mom on Facebook is like, an easy like mark to make fun of, sort of.

PJ: Yeah, and it just feels like, right, it sucks because it’s both like, the joke is mean and shitty, and the joke working, it makes it look like they’re right. But I don’t think they’re right.

KATIE: Yeah, I mean, I think that, like what’s sort of annoying about it a little bit is there’a a certain element of like, if I say to you, “Hey, guess what? I had a hamburger for lunch.” And you’re like, “Okay,” and I was like, “Haha! I totally fooled you. I actually had a burrito. I was totally lying.” 

You’d be like, “Yeah, okay, well, like that was a reasonable thing you told me. Why would I doubt that?” Um, so I feel like it’s one of those of lies where it’s like, you’re not really pulling one over so much on someone because it was kind of believable. So good job, you just lied.  

PJ: What I didn't understand and what is crazy is that this is believable. Like that's the thing I didn't know. It's like oh all these crazy parents are believing that people put razor blades in candy at Halloween. And then you find out like well, they don't put razor blades, but they put tiny daggers and broken glass.

KATIE: (laughs) Yeah, exactly.

PJ: ‘Cause you don’t have to believe that the thing is working. You can just believe that it’s out there to hurt your kids, like to scare them, and while that's not true, it’s totally believable. 

KATIE: Yeah, if the fear is that 4chan trolls are trying to fuck with your kids, that’s, that’s true. Like, they are. 

PJ: Yeah.


PJ: Katie Notopoulos. You can read her very, very good piece about Blippi’s viral video of him taking a crap on his friend and all of her other wonderful tech reporting on Buzzfeed News.

KATIE: Oh, I was, I was just going to say, I- I listened–I was listening to your robocall episode, um, and I feel- I–I’ll be honest, I feel like I don’t totally feel satisfied by it.

PJ: Really? What, what do you want?

KATIE: I guess like, it’s so (sighs) I guess so, so part of what I’m curious about is like the- the, how it works spoofing the phone number. So I understand that like they, they are targeting you based on your location, but like, how do they seem able to call from a seemingly endless amount of phone numbers that like eerily look very similar to my own?

PJ: Yeah.

KATIE: I guess I would love to know what the machine is that makes the fake phone numbers.

PJ: Right, right.

KATIE: That’s always part of the mystery to me, I think.

PJ: Okay, let me find out if we can figure that out.

KATIE: Okay.

PJ: After the break, uh, we try to fix the robocall story for Katie.


PJ VOGT: Phia?




PJ: Alex?




PJ: (laughing) Damiano?


DAMIANO MARCHETTI: Do I all have to say–have to say PJ?


PJ: It’s a free country.




PJ: Um, so an interesting thing happened when I called Katie, which was that, she was like, “I want to talk to you about the robocalls episode.” 


PJ: Uh, not in like the tone of voice of somebody who loved something.


DAMIANO: (laughs)


ALEX: Oooh!


DAMIANO: Oh, no.

ALEX: For our listeners, a couple weeks ago, we did an episode called “Robocall Bang Bang,” which was about just how robocalls have gotten so much worse lately and why. And also about a theory that Damiano had about how he was being targeted for robocalls based on his location. And I guess that Katie didn’t like it.

PJ: She was just like–she was like, “I feel like I still have questions that didn’t get answered.” 


PJ: Number one was just like, how do robocallers actually spoof numbers? Like how could they make it look like the call that Katie’s getting is coming from Katie’s phone?

DAMIANO: Uh huh.


PJ: Or from a phone number that’s like one digit off of hers, and do it like, tens and tens of times a day.


ALEX: I know the answers to all these questions.


PJ: Well, look at you.


PHIA: (laughs)


ALEX: (laughs) Not to brag–not to brag, but I know the answers. And I’m–


PJ: That was- that was like—  


ALEX: Willing to share them all with you.


PJ: If something, if there was like a catastrophic event and we lost know-it-all voice–


PHIA: (laughs)


PJ: And it had to be like recreated, and you were still alive, everything would be fine.

ALEX: Listen, you have questions, I have answers. It’s as simple as that.

PJ: Okay.

ALEX: So, what you're talking about is spoofing, which is the act of calling someone using a phone number that's not the phone number you're actually dialing from. 


PJ: Basically, faking caller ID.


ALEX: Yes, that’s is actually very easy to do. There is software you can get that’s very cheap, if not free, that allows you to just put in whatever number you want.

PJ: Like, you can just say, I want my caller ID to be 911 and it will work?

ALEX: You could say you want your number to be the White House’s number. You could say you want it to be whatever you want. 

PJ: And why is that possible?

ALEX: Because it is a terrible, ridiculous flaw that was baked into the telephone system decades ago. 


ALEX: So, caller ID came to the US in the late-80s.

PJ: From where?

ALEX: They had it in Japan for a long time before then, believe it or not.

PJ: Weird, okay.

ALEX: People were getting caller ID boxes at their houses and that posed a problem for big companies because they wanted any phone call that you got from the company regardless of where it originated from to have the company's, like, 1-800 number.


PJ: So like, if 1-800-Contacts calls you from one of their centers, you just want it, to make it so that people call back 1-800-Contacts no matter what.

ALEX: And at the time, the only way to do it was to purchase like a really, really expensive phone line from the big phone companies. But then in like, the mid-2000s, making phone calls over the internet suddenly became really easy, right?

PJ: Yeah.

ALEX: And they gave all the same functionality to those phone lines, so on those phone lines you could do the same thing that these huge companies were doing for much, much cheaper.

PJ: Got it.

ALEX: So, any mope with a computer and an internet connection can call people from any number that they want.

PJ: Okay. I understand what's happening. I don't understand why they don't just fix it though.


ALEX: Do you wanna know who agrees with you wholeheartedly?


PJ: Who?


ALEX: Damiano Marchetti. Every time he–we talk about it.


DAMIANO: (laughs)


ALEX: Every time someone says it, they’re just like, well, you know, the, this system was made decades ago before people had the capability to make these calls, but Damiano is like, “what’s wrong with you people?”


DAMIANO: Well, I just–and I can’t get anyone to agree with me, which makes me feel insane.


ALEX: (laughs)


DAMIANO: But it’s like literally, the way it was explained to us is that, like, if you’re making like a voice over I.P. call, which is how a lot of these robocalls are made, like over the Internet as opposed to, like, over a landline.


PJ: Yeah.


DAMIANO: There is just like a box that points up being like, “Which number are you calling to? What number do you want to be calling from? And everytime someone tells me that I’m just like, “do these people who invented the system not live in a world where like people have other than good intentions sometimes?”

PJ: Exactly! Even- even–even when it’s like, oh, but don’t worry, it was like decades ago and it was all companies, like, companies also do bad things. Like it just feels weird that– 



PJ: You’re like, okay, we want to provide this one narrow, uh, opportunity of convenience, and so we’ll just create a system that has no security at all.


DAMIANO: It's funny. Alex and I, when we were working on "Long Distance," which is our story about tracking a robocaller down. 

PJ: Yeah.

DAMIANO: We actually used a call spoofer.  

ALEX: We knew that people knew our number and wouldn't pick up.

PJ: Oh, so you spoofed a different phone number.

ALEX: Mhm. I signed up for this service called SpoofCard that made it look like I was calling from Indian phone numbers, so they would pick up.

PJ: Oh, I forgot, I used to have an app like this. 

DAMIANO: We spoofed our calls. 

PJ: Yeah. I used to do this like, actually I got ahold of one of, like, a call spoofer in high school? And I would just call people from other people’s numbers at weird hours. And then they would call people and be like why’d you call me? And I just like enjoyed being a–


ALEX: You would spoof numbers–


DAMIANO: What a tricky boy.


ALEX: When we worked at WNYC, you would spoof numbers– 


PJ: Oh, yeah.


ALEX: And then call me with like a prank phone call soundboard.


PJ: Yeah. It was really good–

DAMIANO: (laughs) 


ALEX: It was so annoying. He’d sit across from me, and I’d be like, “Hello?” And it’d be like, “Hey this is Larry from that mechanic.”


PJ: It was really–it was like super low-grade–


ALEX: “Your butt broke down.”


PJ: And Alex would sometimes fall for them.

DAMIANO: Your butt–?

PJ: Like he would start talking to a recorded sound voice and then it got to a point where he was getting so mad that it like wasn’t an okay joke to do anymore.


ALEX: It was never funny.



PJ: It was very funny to everyone watching your reaction.


DAMIANO: For someone who likes prank calls so much–


PJ: Yeah!


DAMIANO: It seems like you don’t like to be on the other end.


ALEX: I will say the funny thing is that one time PJ was trying not to laugh and the way he did it was by opening a drawer and putting his head in, just so he couldn’t look directly at me.


PJ: (laughs)


ALEX: And it was like visually very pleasing

PJ: Anyway. 

ALEX: So…all of this is to say that this is very easy–it’s easy enough that PJ would use it to phone call me at work. And the reason is that the system has been built in such a way that like I don't know how they would fix that. 

DAMIANO: Well you shouldn’t say they–you don’t know how to–they’re gonna fix that. Because they’re trying to fix it right now, right? Right now you can just go on your telephone little interface and be like, “I want to be calling from, you know, PJ’s aunt’s number.”

PJ: Yeah. 

DAMIANO: But, they've created this like little signature, which basically like, what will happen is like, when you're getting a phone call from somebody, your phone company could actually check, like, where is this phone call actually coming from?

PHIA: I just want to, to add a thing about that because I know about that too. I don’t know how we’d like–


PJ: The reason that I asked all three of you to be in this room.


PHIA: (laughs)


PJ: Is because I know that you guys are like the three-headed god of understanding robocalls.


DAMIANO: This is just like, surround sound robocall knowledge?


PJ: Yeah. Team robocall know-it-all.


PHIA: Yeah, so, the thing that Damiano is talking about, where like telephone calls are going to have a little signature in them, that’s actually this project that a bunch of experts have been working on and it’s called STIR/SHAKEN.




PHIA: Yes, STIR/SHAKEN. And it's a group of people from the telephone community, like, AT&T, Verizon, Google, um, and they've all gotten together and they're working on this plan where they'll actually be able to catch robocallers because of this little signature in the calls. I think all of the major telephone companies have announced that they’re going to be putting this in place this year. So, 2019 should hopefully be the year that like robocalls start getting better.


PJ: Oh! Okay.


ALEX: Thank heavens.


PHIA: So that’s a pretty nice, nice update.

PJ: Okay, so wait, so going back to Katie’s thing. One of the things she wants to understand, like, why is it so easy to spoof numbers? Have that. 

But like in the episode, you guys would be like, they use a robo-dialer, they use an auto-dialer. What exactly is an auto dialer? Like, what does it actually look like?


ALEX: So there are basically two ways you can auto dial. There’s like one that’s kind of more above-board, which is there are companies where you go–log into a website, and they have a service that you upload a file to and um–


PJ: A file of phone numbers?


ALEX: A file of phone numbers. Like a CSV file, like a–

DAMIANO: Spreadsheet–

ALEX: An excel spreadsheet.


PJ: Yeah.


ALEX: And, um, you press a button and it dials those numbers.


PJ: So, that’s if like, the above-board use would be like, it’s a snow day, we gotta call all the parents.


ALEX: Yeah, exactly.

ALEX: So, there’s like Talk Desk. It’s like a site that allows you to do that, but it also like–


PJ: Do that, call a bunch of people.


ALEX: Call a bunch of people.


PJ: I was picturing for no reason at all, an actual machine, and I’m like slightly disappointed that it’s a website.


ALEX: No, it’s not act–it’s not actually a machine, it’s, it’s a computer somewhere. 


DAMIANO: (laughing) You thought it was a machine?


PJ: Yeah!


DAMIANO: What did you think? Like you had to go in the room and like use Svetlana and like–


PJ: Yes.


DAMIANO: (laughing) And you had to–


PJ: I pictured like a Soviet-era, like that like weird beigey–


ALEX: Like an answering machine?


PJ: Yeah, and there were like buttons on it and there was like–


DAMIANO: What are you–(laughs) what?


PJ: If I really think it out–

ALEX: You put punch cards in it.

PJ: And there’s like a robot hand that like hits the numbers. I didn’t really think that, but I think that’s the world of machinery that I was picturing.


ALEX: Well, I’ve got something that’s a little closer to what you’re describing. It’s basically like the digital version of what you’re describing.


PJ: Okay.


ALEX: So, rather than, uh, going to a website, there are also sort of, much more sort of fast and loose software that you can download and will be on a computer, and you can dial using that.


PJ: That’s a little better because then I picture somebody’s laptop–their autodialer laptop that’s just sitting there running all the calls–


ALEX: And that’s, I mean, that’s pretty much what it is. I’ve got a screenshot of Autodialer Pro which is like–


PJ: That sounds shady as hell.


ALEX: It looks like the thing you’re describing, let me just show you.  

PJ: Oh yeah, this is the stuff. 


PJ: It’s like the grey, old, old Windows style–

ALEX: It looks like Windows 2000, and–


DAMIANO: Is this a, this is a contemporary program?


ALEX: Yeah–


PJ: Oh my god! And it actually has graphics of a old telephone dial pad on it.


ALEX: Mhm. And so what you do is–


PJ: This is what I wanted it to be.


ALEX: So what you do is, again, you can upload a spreadsheet OF PHONE NUMBERS to it. But the other thing that I learned while I was going over the Autodialer Pro website, is that there are scripts that you can execute on it.


PJ: Like computer programming–


ALEX: To, yeah, to make, to make phone calls so that it will hang up if X happens, like hang up if it gets an answering machine, hang up if busy. Um, it can select based on the area code of the person they’re calling, it will automatically choose that area code as the dialer.

PJ: Yup.

DIAMIANO: Makes sense.

ALEX: And it can even get more granular than that. It can match the first four numbers or the first six numbers. It can look like it's coming from your number. 

PJ: Here’s something I’m curious about. One of the things that I’ve believed is that if I ever pick up the phone, then they know that it’s a real phone number and they will call me forever.


DAMIANO: Uh huh.


PJ: And so I don’t really pick up the phone. Does the software, can it do that? Can it be like, if pickup, keep on list.

ALEX: Yes. Pretty much any autodialling software, if you- if someone–if a human picks up, it can mark that number so that it can call it back more often.

DAMIANO: Really?

ALEX: It can also mark the phone numbers of people based on how long they stay on the phone with the recording. So if a person’s on with–on it for like ten seconds, as opposed to five, you can call them back more often.


ALEX: Yeah. 

DAMIANO: They have like a sucker list.

PJ: Yeah.

ALEX: But the other thing is that these autodialer apps, they don’t let you just call one number at a time, they let you call like hundreds or thousands of numbers at a time.


PJ: Oh–

ALEX: Yeah.

PJ: That hadn’t occurred to me. I was literally thinking a machine that like, calls someone, hang up, calls someone.



DAMIANO: Oh my god, PJ (laughs).


PJ: (laughs) I don’t know. I–these things are not, I don’t think these are as obvious as you think they are. I think you’ve spent a little too much time in robocall land.

ALEX: Uh, alright, that–does that answer your questions?

PJ: Let me, let me just actually play this back in my head. So, the way it works is, it’s super easy to spoof phone numbers because the phone companies left this loophole so that like AAA could call you or whatever, and have their corporate phone number show up. But they might fix it soon. 

Um, but, but because it’s easy to spoof caller I.D., if you know somebody’s location, it’s really easy to spoof, like, the phone number of where they are to them, and that’s happening with these huge software, unfortunately, programs that can just call hundreds of thousands of people simultaneously.


ALEX: Mhm.


PJ: And the software itself can be configured to like, try to outsmart humans basically.


ALEX: Right.


PJ: Okay. I feel like if you guys–if this was what we put in the original episode, I think Katie would have really liked that (laughs).


ALEX: (laughs)


DAMIANO: (laughs)


ALEX: Can I just say real quick that in the—since the last episode aired, I got really into a terrible phone game.

PHIA: Oh no. What is it?

ALEX: It’s called Matchington Mansion.

PJ: Oh boy.

DAMIANO: (slowly, in disbelief) Matchington Mansion?

PHIA: Oh, you told me about this one!

ALEX: And in–

DAMIANO: Oh, boy–

ALEX: And it’s basically just like Candy Crush, except every time you win a level you get a star, and you can use the stars to renovate a dilapidated mansion.

PJ: Oh, it’s the two kind of addictive games pushed together.


PJ: That’s horrible.

DAMIANO: So what’s your mansion look like now?

PHIA: He showed it to me.

ALEX: I’ve cleaned up the master bedroom, and the library, and the foyer. (DAMIANO laughs)

PJ: It’s insane cause you do not clean the actual space that you live in.

DAMIANO: I was just gonna say! I don’t understand why this is attractive to you, like–!

PHIA: No, he’s like changing the wallpaper, (ALEX: Mhm.) he’s not like, just tidying.

ALEX: Yeah, I fixed the, I fixed the fireplace.

PJ: Also, in real life like–

DAMIANO: I feel like I would really like updating that house.

PHIA: (laughs)

PJ: You guys shouldn’t be allowed to talk to each other.



Reply All is hosted by PJ Vogt and me Alex Goldman. We’re produced by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, Damiano Marchetti, Anna Foley, Jessica Yung, and Emmanuel Dzotsi. Our show’s edited by Tim Howard. We’re mixed by Rick Kwan. Fact-checking by Michelle Harris. Our intern is Christina Ayele Djossa. Special thanks this week to Chris Drake. Our theme song is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. Our ad music is by Build Buildings.

Matt Lieber is like right after you have a terrible cold and someone tells you something that makes you laugh, and for the first time in weeks, it’s doesn’t make you cough.   

You can listen to the show on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you in two weeks.