Saturday, October 20, 2012

Sir, You Are Mental!

Monroe County Insane Asylum

I received a phone call this morning. The caller ID showed "Private Caller", so I could not discern who it was, but on a whim I picked up the phone. The person on the other line said "Asalamualaykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatu". I responded with my salam, but I started feeling uneasy. The full, prolonged salam greeting including the "warahmutallahi wa barakatu" instead of just the more common brief "Asalamualaykum" ( or the even shorter IndoPak "Slamalaykum") has generally been a poor prognostic sign. It evokes images of bearded men, sermons, lectures and pronouncements about hell-fire. It usually also indicates that I am about to begin an unpleasant or boring conversation. 

The man on the other line then started speaking in Urdu and told me how this day would change my life. He also kept on mentioning AT&T, which I found rather distracting, since I do not associate this multimedia conglomerate with life-changing events. I figured that it was some sort of a scam or a telemarketer trying to get me to switch my telephone service and I pretended that I did not understand the Urdu. In a thick IndoPak accent, he then said "No problem!" I envisioned a head-bob with the "No problem!", then I heard a few clicks, some voices whispering to each other, and strangely enough, David Bowie's "Absolute Beginners" playing in the background. 

If it hadn't been for David Bowie, I would have probably hung up, but the combination of AT&T, David Bowie and conspiratorial whispers was just too tantalizing. Then another voice came on the line, speaking English with an equally thick IndoPak accent. He used the more universal and secular "Good morning, Sir!" greeting and introduced himself as "Ashok Verma". He then proceeded to say that I was extremely lucky, because the AT&T lottery had chosen me to receive $40,000.

From there on, the conversation went downhill.

"Why have I won $40,000?", I wanted to know.

"That is not your problem, Sir. This is the AT&T lottery and every day we pick one person to win $40,000. You are the lucky one today."

"I never entered a contest. How can I win money?", I asked.

"Don't worry about this, Sir. Just give us your account number and we will transfer the money into your account."

Obviously, this phone call had nothing to do with AT&T, which does not run a lottery. At first I thought it was a prank call, but this request for my bank info was quite specific. This was probably just the plain old 419-scam (named after section 419 in the Nigerian legal code), like the ones we normally find in emails. These 419-emails ask to give our account number so that large amounts of money can be transferred into them from obscure, jilted politicians, claiming that they are based in Nigeria or other West African countries. Unsuspecting (and greedy) folks occasionally fall for this and hand out their bank information, but instead of receiving millions of dollars from West Africa, they see money disappearing from their own bank account. I know about the email scams, but this was my first 419-phone call.  

The background song "Absolute Beginners" had ended and now I heard some Bollywood music song playing, while the person on the other line was patiently waiting for my account details. I decided to play my own game and said:

"I work with the Naperville police fraud detection unit and I am supposed to report any fraud attempt to them. Can you please give me your exact name, number and address so I can report you?"

I do not think that the small town of Naperville has a fraud detection unit, but I figured this small lie was not as outrageous as my request for the caller's phone number and address.

Suddenly the background music was turned off.

"What you say?", he asked, with an even heavier IndoPak accent and some anxiety.

I calmly repeated my request.

Then he became very agitated and started yelling:

"Sir, you are mental! I am giving you money and you bring the police into this!"

I told him that we routinely receive calls like this and in our town, we have been told by the police to immediately contact the fraud detection unit so they can start the investigation. 

He first yelled at me and said "You do not need a police station, you need to go to a mental hospital. You are saying no to free money. Sir, you are mental!"

Then someone in the background yelled something and the line went dead.


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