September 7, 2017

#104 The Case of the Phantom Caller

by Reply All

Background show artwork for Reply All

A woman in New Jersey is getting strange phone calls to her office from unknown numbers. Every time she picks up, she finds herself eavesdropping on the life of a different stranger. Unsure what else to do, she calls in Super Tech Support.

Further Reading
The FCC consumer complaint center. FBI internet crime complaint center. A profile of James Brown on his company's website.  
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PJ VOGT: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m PJ Vogt.

ALEX GOLDMAN: And I’m Alex Goldman.

PJ: Alex Goldman.

ALEX: Yes.

PJ: We are back, and I have super tech support case for you.

ALEX: Alright.

[Super tech support theme music]

PJ: So obviously, super tech support is when we try to help a listener with an overly complicated computer problem they’re trying to solve. This one is absolutely the hardest one I’ve ever seen.

ALEX: Oh I’m excited now

PJ: OK, so, this came in from a listener named Jodie.

JODIE: Hello?
PJ: Hey, Jodie?

PJ: Our first conversation was back in March.

PJ: Yeah thanks for sending in a support ticket. It sounds very weird, what is happening to you.
JODIE: Yeah--it is. Nobody can s--seem to figure it out, and I work with all kinds of web people.

PJ: So the problem is happening at Jodie’s job. She works in New Jersey at this company that sells dot law domain names to lawyers.


PJ: Anyway, Jodie is the person who picks up the 1-800 number at work. And starting last December she started getting these like weird phone calls.

ALEX: Define weird.

PJ: So in the beginning, like, normal weird I would say. She'd pick up her phone and just hear this screeching modem noise.

JODIE: Like horribly loud feedback. Um, like really loud.

[Loud modem]

PJ: Or sometimes it would be like, um, this melody.

[Strange hold music]

ALEX: OK. So just getting a weird phone call, it’s just like hang up and move on.

PJ: Sure. But then, this thing starts happening where she’ll be sitting at her desk, she’ll pick up her phone, and she’ll just hear like, it’s as if a stranger, somewhere out in the world, is just holding the phone up to wherever they are.

JODIE: It just sounded like (sighs). It was outside? Or, yeah like, you could hear like muffled voices or like traffic.
PJ: Would, would any--like, did you try talking?
JODIE: Yeah, a lot. I did. I would be like “Hello?!” Like I would get really loud. And, and I thought, "Somebody’ll pick up or somebody’ll hear me," but that never happened.

PJ: If she doesn't pick up the phone, these'll go to her voicemails. Which is actually how we’ve ended up with tons of recordings of these weird calls.

ALEX: I would like to hear some. I have a lot more questions, but I would like to hear some.

PJ: Yeah. Here--let me play you this one.

[Basketball tape]

ALEX: It sounds like it's a basketball game.

PJ: Yeah. That's what I think. It sounds like a basketball game ‘cause you can hear a ball dribbling and you can actually hear sneakers squeaking--

ALEX: You can hear the sneakers squeaking. And then, at the very beginning you could hear a child saying something to their mom. Like, it's being recorded from... What the hell is going on?

PJ: I know. Let me play you another one that makes this more confusing, and like, to me, just weirder. OK?


[Farm tape]

PJ: Where do you think you are?

ALEX: I hear birds chirping. I hear what sounds like a fly.

PJ: Uh huh.

ALEX: How does a fly pick up on a phone?

PJ: I know.

ALEX: But now there's car sounds... What are those? Are those storm sirens?

PJ: I think so.

ALEX: (exhales) This is actually distressing.

PJ: I know.

ALEX: It feels bad.

PJ: I know. Also, once she started getting these calls, it was like some kind of dam had broken. Like, she was getting them all the time.


JODIE: I’d get them on the weekend, I’d get them in the middle of the night. Um, like I’ll come in and I’ll have three voicemails that have come from the evening


PJ: And it’s like with each call, she’s just thrown into some totally different place. Like, suddenly she’s just in the middle of a town square somewhere

[Bell tape]

PJ: Or, she’ll just be in a laundromat for some reason.

[Laundromat tape]

PJ: There are a lot of offices. There are a lot of muffled conversations between strangers

[Muffled conversations tapes]

PJ: There’s also just crystal clear phone calls.

[Clear conversation tape]

PJ: Some of the these actually feel like, too private to share. Like there’s one where somebody’s doing a criminal background check on somebody else.

ALEX: Does Jodie have any theories?

PJ: Um, she does but like when I pressed her on what she thought was going on she got really embarrassed.

JODIE: Yeah it’s weird, I mean now in this day and age when, you know, cybersecurity is such a thing, um, it's just, you know, my mind is like, “Oh gosh, like what if the government is using my phone.” But you know that's just like, uneducated, I'm sure. So that's why I figured I’d e-mail you guys.

PJ: She’s like maybe the NSA was somehow accidentally forwarding me their wiretaps. So, I didn’t know-- I honestly did not know if this was something that was happening on purpose or by accident, but the thing that was clear was that every day in America, people’s private lives are being broadcast to a Jodi. So, I asked her just a couple more questions about her phone setup.

JODIE: OK. So we have a Toshiba phone. And then we use Precision Interconnect, it’s like an authorized voice and data service agent.
PJ: Got it. OK.

PJ: And I told her I’d try to get to the bottom of it.

So I decided to start with the one clue I had. Which was just, every one of these calls to Jodie had shown upon on her caller ID. Every single one had a different phone number. And so I made a list of all those phone numbers, and I was just like, I’m just going to start calling.

[Phone ringing]

PJ: (under breath) God this is weird.
MALE VOICE: Mmm-ello?
PJ: Hi, my name’s PJ Vogt, I’m a reporter, I’m working on a story about somebody who has been getting a bunch of strange phone calls, and this is one of the numbers that they’ve gotten a call from.
MAN: Uh, I haven’t been calling anybody.

PJ: I had a lot of awkward conversations with people who had no idea I was talking about. The longest one was with this guy at a call center where I just ended up like, consoling him.

CALL CENTER GUY: Yes, sir, I do apologize for that, I do understand, I like, my--
PJ: No, you do not have to apologize. No, no--I’m not upset, I’m just trying to understand.
CALL CENTER GUY: I’m so sorry about that.
PJ: No, no, no, no. No need to apologize. Um.


PJ: And it wasn’t just that nobody knew what I was talking about. It was like, the places themselves didn’t even match up. Like, this is what I got when I called the number from the town square.

WOMAN: We’re--we’re a dental office
PJ: Interesting, okay. Um!

PJ: The number for the distant, ethereal music, that went here:

FEMALE VOICE: The Carolina Renaissance Festival is open Saturday and Sundays. Thank you for calling the Carolina Renaissance Festival. Huzzah!

PJ: The number for that call that sounded like a basketball game--that belonged to this super friendly woman in Montana who actually was just like willing to stay on the phone with me and go through her calendar and make sure that on the date of the phone call, she had been nowhere near a sporting event of any kind.

MONTANA WOMAN: Yeah. No! Nothing.
PJ: Weird! Alright. I’m going to see what else I can learn about this. Do you mind if I call you back at some point?
MONTANA WOMAN: Keep calling me back, because I’m curious as shit now.


PJ: The one thing I noticed was a lot of the people I spoke to-- they said that their phones were voiceover IP, VoIP.

ALEX: Meaning that they are making calls over the internet.

PJ: Which felt like maybe something. Because Jodie had VoIP too-- remember, she said she got it through that company Precision Interconnect.


PJ: And so I started to wonder about Precision Interconnect. I’d never heard of them. And when I looked them up, one pretty basic web site and almost no web presence besides that. And every time I tried to call them on the phone, either nobody would pick up, or someone would tell me that Harley Bittman, who was the woman I was supposed to talk to had just left. Until finally…

UNKNOWN: Can I help you?.
PJ: Hey, this is PJ. I’m calling back to see if Harley’s in the office yet.
UNKNOWN: Uh... hold on for one second please
PJ: Sure.
[Aggressive ballet hold music plays]
HARLEY: Hi, it's Harley!
PJ: Hey Harley, my name's PJ Vogt. I’ve been trying to get ahold of you. It’s good to get you on the phone.
HARLEY: How can I help you?
PJ:OK, so, this is- this is a complicated thing, um, so--
HARLEY: Wait, where--are you a customer of ours?
PJ: No, but I--I'm a reporter but I'm helping a customer of yours solve a interesting phone-related mystery.
HARLEY: You're a reporter?
PJ: Yes.
HARLEY: You're a reporter...
PJ: (laughs)
HARLEY: (to someone off the phone) He’s a reporter! You're a reporter for where?
PJ:OK, so, I work for a company called Gimlet, and, I ma--
HARLEY: Giblet?
PJ: Gimlet. Um--
HARLEY: Like a little, like part of a chicken, like?
PJ: No that's giblet. Like-like the drinks that people have. But that's not supposed to be a reference to that either--
HARLEY: Oh okay, alright--Anyway!

PJ: Eventually, I was able to explain to Harley what was going on with Jodie. I actually had to play her one of the phone calls for it to make sense.

HARLEY: Does that sound like birds? Or--
PJ: To--
HARLEY: --somebody playing games.
PJ: To me, I listen to that, and I’m like that’s a farm. Like I think it’s like a--but so then I’m like, why.
HARLEY: See if it was harassment they would be saying things, ya know, unless they're just--like who would do that?

PJ: Pretty soon Harley was like, just as fascinated by with these calls as I was. She had just like-- she had never seen anything like them. And the more we talked, the more I realized like, that was a big deal. Because, Harley, her job brings her into contact with like more weird phone malfeasance than you could ever imagine. That’s why she’s always so busy. Like literally that day, the thing she’d been busy with before she got on the phone with me– was a hacker had broken into one of her customers phone and then made all these very expensive long distance calls.

HARLEY: Like to, you know, terrorist nations.
PJ: That happens?
HARLEY: Yeah. All the time. Not--I shouldn't say terrorist nations, not, necessarily. It's like people--it's always international. I have a customer, they had $19,000 worth of international calls--
PJ: Oh my god--
HARLEY: --in one day. I can't remember where those calls (shouts to someone off the phone) Where were those calls too? All over the world? (to PJ) All over the world. (to someone off the phone) But like, were they terrorist nations? You don't know? (to PJ) I don't know the--may-th-ah--they were $19,000 worth of international calls. That scenario is happening all over the place.

PJ: Okay so, what Harley calls terrorist nations...I looked into this. Here’s what I think she's referring to. There have been actually been phone scams targeting Americans that have been used to fund terror organizations

ALEX: How does making phone calls fund a terrorist organization?

PJ: OK so here’s a real example from years ago.


PJ: Bunch of hackers from the Philippines break into a bunch of americans phone systems.

ALEX: Uh huh.

PJ: They spend the weekend dialing and redialing a very expensive 900 number that they own, and they rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in charges.

ALEX: Uh huh.

PJ: And then they take that money and hand it over to their sponsors, a Saudi Arabia-based terror group.

ALEX: That is so convoluted.

PJ: Yes it is. Also, it does not explain what’s going on with Jodie, because we checked her phone bill. It’s completely normal.

ALEX: Right.

PJ: So.


PJ: Harley is like, “I don't know what this is, but I know it's fishy.”

HARLEY: I mean, the thing that bothers me the most about the whole story...
PJ: Mhm.
HARLEY: --Is that she called back the numbers and it's not the people.
PJ: Why does that bother you the most?
HARLEY: Because it means that it's intentional that somebody's putting in a different number.
PJ: Ohhhhh.


PJ: Somebody was covering their tracks. But that was all she could tell me.



PJ: Which meant that it was time to call Dave Maynor.


PJ: Hey, Dave?
PJ: How’s it going?

PJ: Dave's the guy who helped us Episode 53, in Atlanta. He is Super Tech Support's Super Tech Support. I told him everything that was going on, everything we've learned, and he was like, "This is much ado about nothing."

DAVE: None of this is like strange. Right?
PJ: It feels strange to me. So you don't hear this and think, like malfeasance, hacking government wiretaps, et cetera.
DAVE: No no, there's a there's a logical answer like--so this is really like, this is a technical problem we just need to debug.

PJ: Dave told me like basically all he needed to do was just like, visit Jodie's office, look at her phone, and he could figure out what kind of banal cross wire had created this problem.


PJ: I was like, "OK, but just in case, could I send you the recordings, just so you could hear them?" Two hours later, I got a message from Dave that said, "What the actual hell?"

DAVE When you described them, I was like, “It can’t be that--it can’t, it can’t be that interesting. It’s just going to be whatever.” But then you listen to them, and you’re like holy crap!
PJ: Yeah.
DAVE: Yeah, like, almost like episodic TV shows, right? Like, ah! What’s going to happen next?
PJ: Yeah.

PJ: He was convinced that they were basically like one big story that had been chopped up into all these phone calls, and if he could just lay them all in the right order, he would know the story.

[Police siren tape]

DAVE: Right, and I was like, alright, we’ll start correlating this. Where would there be an ambulance or a police car? There’s also like, a church bell, or something, right?

PJ: And that is how Dave ended up making his big discovery.

So I gotta play you two calls that came into Jodi’s phone, three weeks apart from each other. The first one is from March 6th— it’s the one that sounds like it's from a basketball court

[Boy talking to mom tape]

PJ: And here’s a call she got on March 28th, from a completely different phone number.

[Boy talking to mom tape]

PJ: It’s the same call.

ALEX: (sighs) Oh. That doesn't give me any ideas about what this might be!

PJ: Me neither. I was like, “Why is that so important?” He was like, "What that means is that somebody made this. There is a person or persons who have designed this to do something."


PJ: Dave's fascination with these recordings, and my fascination with these recordings, and Jodie's fascination, and your fascination, we've been eating bait in somebody's trap.


PJ: Coming up after the break, we get answers.


PJ: Welcome back to the show. Here’s where we are. Dave is convinced that these phone calls are actually recordings, and they were made on purpose by somebody.

ALEX: But why would somebody make recordings and just play them for people in a way that is designed to make me feel deeply uncomfortable?

PJ: So Dave was actually was like -- what- I dunno, but I’m sure that this is basically about money. Because there’s so much money to be made in phone fraud, somebody would not come up with something so new and devious unless they were using it to make money.

ALEX: How would someone make money from one of these calls?

PJ: So that's what I--actually Dave couldn't answer. He was like, “I know a lot of guys who work in this field. I spend time dabbling in this field. What is so weird to me is I see the beauty and the genius of the bait, but the trap is totally in--invisible to me.”

And Dave said all of that and then he disappeared into Ukraine, like the country was crippled by this horrible ransomware bug, and he had to go fix it, and so he was just like gone.


PJ: And so I was just left with this question. And basically like, for months, I just roamed the earth looking for somebody else who could explain what this trap was to me.

I talked to this like white hat phone hacker in Berlin who seemed promising, but he’d never heard of it. There was a guy in Washington State who’d gotten ten years for VoIP hacking, no dice. I learned about Wangiri fraud, toll bypass fraud, wholesale sip trunking. Nothing explained these spooky calls, and nobody I talked to had even like, heard of them. Until the end of July, when I found this guy in Santa Barbara.

PJ: Say your name and like, your title, like how you want us to identify you.
JAMES BROWN: Sure. James Brown. I’m the senior manager of cloud operations at Invoca.

PJ: James works for this company that does call tracking and analytics for other companies. I got James on the phone, did the thing I always do, which is like, told him about Jodi, told him about the phone calls. James reacted completely differently

PJ: She would just hear like ambient recordings from like, god knows where in the world.
JAMES: Yeah (laughs).
PJ: Um, does that sound familiar to you?
JAMES: Yeah. Very.
PJ: Really?
JAMES: Yeah. Is she just like on a cell phone or does she have a toll free number, like at an office or something that’s getting called?
PJ: Toll free number at an office. She works, she--but basically, she, a few different 1-800 numbers that are widely advertised on the internet go to her.
JAMES: Yup. And they probably don’t change. They’ve probably been up there on the internet for a long time .
PJ: This is all true. I like that you’re already able to fill in--this makes me feel like I’m close to this.

PJ:  Turned out James was way further down the rabbit hole than me. For instance, I have 62 of these recordings. James has collected over 10,000.

PJ: I'm so curious if you've heard the ones I've heard. Like, there's one, it sounds like it's outside and then there's like something that sounds almost like an air raid siren that's really--a lot of them creepy to me.
JAMES: (laughs)
PJ: Do you know that one?!
JAMES: I do yeah. If you clean it up it actually sounds more like a train horn.
PJ: Huh!
JAMES: Train's going by. But yeah, it's funny because when I first heard it, I thought the same thing. I was like, “What is this, like a nuclear like test in Russia?” (laughs) Yeah.
PJ: I just feel so excited to meet you because I've been spending so much time in the audio of these calls. It feels like finding out somebody who likes the same band as you (laughs), but you never meet anybody who likes the band.
JAMES: It's pretty fascinating, actually. Like, two and a half years ago, one of our customers reached out to our customer success team with a call recording and they were like, “Hey what is this? And why are they calling me?”  And I listened to it and I was like what the? That got my curiosity perked in and then, yeah.


PJ: And so the first thing that James notices is that these weird phone calls, they’re only going to the customers who have 1-800 numbers.

ALEX: OK. Alright.

PJ: Um, and so James decides to build a honeypot. He registers 20,000 1-800 numbers and he monitors everything that goes into them. Every weird phone call they get, he records it, and he looks at the metadata.

And he figures out that what he's looking at is a computer program. It's a massive computer program, designed by somebody to scrape the Internet for 1-800 numbers, including Jodie's, and then place hundreds of thousands of calls to these 1-800 numbers every day. And the program has been designed to hide itself. It's supposed to look like normal phone traffic, so the phone carriers don't realize what's going on.

JAMES: It starts ramping up about 6:00 a.m., and hits peak probably around like 9:00 or 10:00 a.m., and it tapers back down with business hours. They literally--and here, here it even gets even better. So we caught them one time where they messed up because they forgot to turn off their traffic on a holiday.
PJ: (laughs)
JAMES: So we saw their traffic go through the roof and they realized that, at like two or three o'clock in the afternoon. And they cut it and you just saw a clip, like their traffic’s going and then boop! It just falls off.
PJ: Wow!
JAMES: Because they're usually very smart about it. Like they’ll honor like bank holidays. They just try to blend it in.

PJ: And so James then starts going to phone companies and being like, “Okay how would somebody make money off of somebody else by calling their 1-800 number and playing like, spooky sounds over the phone line?

ALEX: (laughs)

PJ: And he is able to piece together an explanation, which I am now going to give to you. Uh, which is, you’re just gonna have to bear with me.


PJ: OK, so, in the 1960s. (laughs)

ALEX: UH. (laughs) I’m here. I’m here for this.

PJ: So, in the 1960s, toll free numbers are invented, okay?

JAMES: The way that the toll-free industry works is that it's a reverse payment system, right? So you have a toll free number, I call you, I don’t pay. Right? The--the remote end pays.

PJ: So-- so that I knew. But what I didn’t know is that when a company has a toll free number and they pay the phone company a dollar or whatever, the phone company takes that dollar, and shares it with every other phone company that helped make the connection.


PJ: So like I’m making this up but if I call Jodie right now, I’ll place the call and it’ll go to like an AT & T tower near me, and then a Verizon Tower in Manhattan, and then over to a Sprint tower to New Jersey, to Jodie.

JAMES: So there’s 1, 2, 3 hops down the chain. Each one of those, you know, for a 1 dollar phone call, is getting maybe ten cents, right? Carrier 2 is getting ten cents. Carrier 3 is getting ten cents.

PJ: So, it’s actually even less money than that. But, there’s so many of these calls happening every single day, that even though the phone companies might just be dividing fractions of penny each time, those fractions of pennies add up to like millions of dollars.

ALEX: Right.

PJ: And so what happened a few years ago apparently, is some brilliant person was like, "Huh, I would love to take some of that money." And what they did was go to some shady telecom company somewhere, like Crazy Eddie’s Phone Service and they were like, "Listen, I am going to place a ton of 1-800 calls though you, and when you get paid for them, share that money with me."

JAMES: So, the more phone calls I can make, and the longer that those phone calls stay up, the more money that I make.
PJ: OK, so how does that get us to spooky phone calls from nowhere
JAMES: Aha! So, let’s think about that, right?
JAMES: I send out a bunch of phone calls that are just silent, right? It takes you what, a second, two seconds. “Hello hello, damn it.” Hang up the phone, you’re done, you're gone. So how do you keep people on the phone, right? You appeal to their curiosity.
PJ: Right.

PJ: So like those first calls that Jodie was getting, like the static and the music, those would have been the first drafts. And then the later calls, it was like the scammers were actually figuring out how to be interesting.

ALEX: It’s so--it’s so brilliant. It’s so stupid and so smart at the same time.

PJ: (laughs)


PJ: Also, James doesn’t think this is like a bunch of scammers doing the same thing. He thinks all of these calls are coming either from one small group or even like one person.

And he even has a theories about who that person could be. He says retired, in their mid 40’s, used to work at one of the big phone companies.

JAMES: Like, I’m convinced that that’s who that is. Because, like, it has to be someone that's very intimate with large scale traffic, right?

PJ: James says that the list of people with the know-how to pull of this scam is so short, he's basically talked to everyone on it while he was learning about it.

PJ: Did you ever feel like maybe you were sitting across from the person?JAMES: So many times.
PJ: Really?
JAMES: Yeah. So, we go to conferences and stuff like that. And people would ask questions, almost like this exchange, right? Where they would be asking these question, "Oh that's so interesting, so interesting." And then I start thinking, I’d be like, I wonder if he’s trying to find counterintelligence. We also saw two occasions that within 12 hours of attending the conference, we saw the traffic shift significantly.
PJ: (gasps)
JAMES: And the carriers that the traffic came into changed, so it was like-- it was like a game of cat and mouse, you know? .
PJ: Do you ever wonder why the person the fraudster hasn't stopped? Like they've made a lot of money, they know that people are pursuing them--JAMES: My guess is because they are not afraid. I think they're literally thumbing their nose at government agencies. If you look at some of the recordings that they use, they're literally reading news articles off, off like the FCC website. (laughs) Like, to me that seems like a very literal thumb to them. Because I think they know that it's very difficult for them to get caught.

PJ: Basically to get 'em, you got to go to Crazy Eddy Telecom and be like "Listen, all that money you’re making off one of your customers, you need to stop. It’s illegal. I need all the information on them. Hand it over." And they have no reason to cooperate. Basically James would need subpoena power.

PJ: Yeah. Can you just say, so I have it for our thing, can you just say your name and, and what your job is?
PAT ARMOR: Yeah. So, um, my name is Pat Armor and I'm a special agent with the Cyber Division of the FBI.

PJ: James has got reinforcements. He is now sharing his honeypot with the FBI and the FCC. There’s an open investigation. And I asked Agent Armor, like do you agree with James  that it's possible that this whole mess, hundreds of thousands of phone calls everyday, phone companies losing untold gobs of money, could it all really be the work of one person?

ARMOR: A lot of the characteristics of the calls, um, tend to be the same. I'd say it's not coming from a ton of different folks. I’ll--I guess I'll just keep it at that.
PJ: Is this person or persons--are they catchable? Like, can they be caught?
ARMOR: Yeah. They will be caught.
PJ: OK! (laughs)
ARMOR: Yup. No doubt about it (laughs). There’s a lot of money involved.

ALEX; He sounds awfully confident that he can catch this person.

PJ: Yeah, I kinda believe him (laughs). Um, so I still had to call Jodie back. So I called her, I was like, "We can’t actually stop these call,s but the FBI is on it and when they arrest the person, then I think the calls will probably stop." She was basically just excited to finally know the origin of these weird phone calls she’s been getting.


JODIE: Oh my gosh!
PJ: Yeah.
JODIE: I fell into the--I fell into the trap, because I used to like, leave them on for 20 minutes when I picked up the call.
PJ: (laughs) This person probably really likes you a lot.
JODIE: Aw, man! (laughs) I mean, I guess I made somebody some money, so...

PJ: She said I could close her ticket. We hung up. And then she got another phone call.

[Phone call: Here, though the earth be removed and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the seas, though the waters thereof roar and be trouble, though the mountains shake was the swelling thereof, selah. There is a river that streams, whereof shall make glad the City of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most high. God is in the midst of here. She shall not be moved. Go shall help here and that rise early. The heathen raves, the kingdoms will move, he uttered his voice, the earth mountain. Lord of hosts is with us. The God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah! Come, behold the works of the Lord, with desolations he hath made in the earth."]