Sunday, June 23, 2013

Close Encounters of the Paper Kind

A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting near the bandshell in Central Park, reading.

A woman, who'd just walked her dog past my bench, called out "is that good?" I looked up. She was calling to me. Even while walking along the Mall, she'd been able to read the large gold letters on the spine. The book was one she'd been hearing about (it was Kate Atkinson's Life After Life) and she was glad for the opportunity of speaking with someone who was already midway through it.

We talked for a while before she moved on. She was happily excited at the prospect of buying the book later that day. And me, well I felt some satisfaction in being able to support a writer whose work I both enjoy and admire.

Have you ever stopped to speak with someone this way? Did you ever see someone immersed in a book you never heard of and taken the time to jot down (or make a mental note of) the title?

It's a bit of serendipity that won't be around much longer. I don't know about you, but I'm going to miss it.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

I'm Calling About Reducing Your Power Bill (postscript)

Follow-up to yesterday's post:

I've just had yet another call claiming to help the consumer save (very specific, this one) "7% of your energy bill." Again referencing the amazing government program, the tape also stated this company was reaching out to "all customers of Con Edison."

It was irresistible. So I pressed '5' to speak with an operator.  Oh, happy day! The tape informed me that all calls would be monitored for quality assurance and training purposes!

  • The operator "Keith Andrews" spoke with a decided Indian accent. 

I should make an aside here to note that I'm aware how standard this practice is. I once worked for a company with a large offshore division. Our Mumbai client-facing team members were each assigned an "American" name. It's meant to deflect the known consumer resistance to offshore call centers. 

  • Anyway, "Keith" immediately asked the name of my utility company. I did my best dingbat and said "don't you know? You just said this call was for customers of Con Edison."  We had a jolly little circular conversation in this manner for almost a minute.

  • Finally, I said: "Wait, I'm confused. Are you from Con Edison?"

  • He explained that he was from Kiwi Energy.  I even had him spell the name, to make sure I had it right.

  • I asked if he was from New Zealand, a very poor joke that he didn't get.  He reassured me, "No, Kiwi Energy, right here in Brooklyn."

  • I acted confused again and said "I still don't understand, what does this have to do with Con Edison?"

At that point, the line went dead.

Naturally I did a search. Indeed there is a company called Kiwi Energy. They are not a service organization nor are they in Brooklyn. According to their website, Kiwi Energy is "a private oil & natural gas exploration and development company located in Houston, Texas."

So the scammers are too lazy to even set up a proper shell company of their own! Not only do they want to steal your identity, they've already stolen a corporate identity in order to do it!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

I'm Calling About Reducing Your Power Bill

It's evening, a prime time for fundraisers, pollsters and scams, and the phone rings. This isn't the phone I use for business, and none of my family or friends call at this time of day, but I still answer pleasantly—you never know when it might be a real call.
  • A hesitant female voice says "Hello. Is this Miss Bear-honn?"
okay, it's not a real call, but I keep a cheerful tone 
  • "And who is this?"
  • "This is Angel from (carefully mumbled unmemorable corporate name). We're calling to help you reduce your power bill."
ahhh; one of those calls.  Yes, of course this number is on the "do not call" list, but people who are running a personal information collection scam are hardly going to worry about violating a polite little constraint like that.
It was originally the occasional automated call, the kind where you have to press 1 to speak with a person. At first I hoped they'd stop calling if I just kept hanging up; but after the first half dozen, I started pressing 1. I would immediately be asked if I had my utility bill handy. Whatever I said next—including "why?"—was never on the call script, so whoever it was would immediately hang up.
I don't know about you, but I'm getting pretty damned sick of this and there doesn't seem to be a damned thing anyone can do to stop them. So since they've dropped the recordings and gone straight to human cold-callers, I've been trying a different approach: 
  • "I see. And how did you get my number?"
  • (hesitantly; this is not on the call script) "From the power company."
  • (with apparently genuine, friendly interest; sometimes the old acting chops come in handy) "I'm afraid that's impossible. The power company doesn't have this phone number. So how did you get my number?"
  • (groping now) "From the (mumble mumble) department of my company."
  • (still friendly and curious) "Really? How did they get this number?"
  • (increasingly nervous) "From the power company."
  • (puzzled) "But I've just explained, that's not possible. This phone number is not connected with any power company accounts." (a little less friendly) I'd really like to know how your company got this phone number."
  • (fumbling for words) "I'm sorry to have disturbed you..."
  • "No, no. I understand. You're in a call center, probably halfway across the world, and you were given this number." (that last bit was based on an observation of her accent; note that I've heard a number of national and US regional accents on these calls.) Would you have a supervisor that I can speak to?" 
I've now allowed a bit of steel to slip into my own voice. When she replies, her voice is muffled, as if her head has turned away from the mouthpiece. Is she looking around the room in panic?? 
  • "I'll have to call you back tomorrow, Miss..."
  • (I employ the cool, "not so fast, buster" voice) "No. I would like to speak with someone right this minute. May I speak with your supervisor, please?"
  • "I'm sorry to have disturbed you Miss.
And she hangs up.
Do I feel just a little bad for the timid young woman at the other end of the call? She is, presumably, only trying to make a living. Maybe she's so naive that she doesn't understand her employers are crooks. Maybe, for one miserable reason or another, she can't afford to care. 

My hunch is that she is being exploited, but so are the thousands of people who fall for the con and volunteer their personal information. I'm assuming there are thousands of them, because what used to be an occasional nuisance call has now become an almost weekly occurrence. It's got to be pretty damned lucrative for the number of companies trying this con to have escalated to such an extent.

Con artists and scams are nothing new in human history, but 21st century technology has made them more virulent. That can be said of all the ways in which humans traditionally prey on one another. Seems as though the more technology we create, the less civilized we become.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Like reality tv, only real-er

Telenovela playing out on the subway today.

By the time I board, a family beach outing has already gone sour (never figured out why) and the whole car has to bear witness for the next nine stops. Mom is shrieking (in alternating English and Spanish) at teen-aged son Aidan, who is sitting across from her. Aidan, earphones plugged in, is high as a kite and swigging beer from a supermarket water bottle.

The main burden of Mom's screaming is that whatever-it-is IS ENOUGH, and she wants him OFF THE TRAIN!  At every station, she "threatens" that she's getting off RIGHT NOW and he'd BETTER come with her. He mumbles stubbornly "I'm goin' to the beach" and slouches into his seat. Ashley (cutoffs, giant shades and purple dandelion shoulder ink) stands between her Mom and bro' and switches sides in the argument approximately every five minutes. When Aidan spills booze on the passenger sitting next to him and the woman presumes to complain, both Mom and Ashley gang up on HER.

Will Mom stop threatening and haul ass off the train? If so, will Aidan go with her or stay put? Whose side is Ashley really on? And what of the beer-sprayed bystander??