A couple of weeks ago, an invasion took place at the Houston Herald office.
Pretty much out of nowhere, a series of weird phone calls began coming in during the morning hours of Tuesday, May 14. Once they started, they poured in all day long.
By the time 5 p.m. rolled around, we had probably gotten about 35 calls from people (mostly male) with heavy accents asking for a woman whose name none of us had ever heard of (in case she’s local or something like that, I’m going to substitute a fictitious name, and her name isn’t really relevant to the story, anyway).
The callers claimed to be on a quest to reach the woman regarding her “approved loan.” Trying to block them from calling back wouldn’t have done any good, because each time they called, our caller ID showed a different number from a different location. Among the dozen or more places that showed up were Florida, Washington, California, and even Ontario, Canada.
For a while, the ladies in the office and I tried our level best to halt the invasion by diligently explaining that we didn’t know the woman and that the number repeatedly being dialed belonged to a business. But a couple of hours into the battle we realized our efforts were futile.
Based on the cadence of their accents, I’m guessing the callers were from India, and they were scammers sitting in call center in the middle of the night trying to bilk gullible Americans out of hard-earned money. It was obvious they didn’t really care about speaking to the woman they asked for, because after we told them we didn’t know who she was they would unwaveringly go into their canned spiel anyway. I’m sure the goal of the ruse was to get a bank account number in order to “deposit” the loan, and maybe a credit card number in order to charge a loan “processing fee.”
Of course, you know what happens after that.
Anyway, once we knew we weren’t going to curb the recurring intrusions, I decided to play some mind games with the insistent, incessant perpetrators.
First I went Indian on them (not native American – Indian, as in India, that big country where a billion Indian people live). It was great, because I was basically mirroring the vocal delivery of the numbskull on the other end of the line.
Here’s how it sounded:
“Hello, may I speak to Annie Hooper?” the caller said.
Cue temporary Indian accent.
“I do not know anyone by that name, but please allow me to be speaking to Abu,” I said.
“Abu?” he said.
“Yes, Abu,” I said.
“I do not know an Abu,” he said.
“Abu is your supervisor, and he and I have an agreement to document each phone call you are making on this day,” I said.
“I have no supervisor named Abu,” he said.
“I will let Abu know that you said that does not exist, and I am believing he will be a very unhappy man,” I said. “Please to be having a nice day, thank you.”
Next time I answered one of the calls, I went good-old-boy on the unsuspecting intruder.
It began when I answered. Cue combination southern drawl and hillbilly rhythm.
“Yellow,” I said.
“Yes, may I please speak to Annie Hooper?” the call nut said.
“Shore ‘nuff,” I said. “But first let me ask you something son. Y’all ever heard of them there big-eyed click beetles? Them are as good as it gits when it comes to fishin’ from a canoe in the Big Piney.”
“Uhh,” he said.
“Yessir, if’n ya’ll ever come down our way here in south-central Missouruh, y’all make sure and bring a box full of them beetles,” I said. “That’s some fine bass bait right there. And them goggle-eyes ‘n’ bluegills like ‘em, too.”
“Uhhh,” he said. “So, Annie Hooper is not available?”
“Ya know, them was her favorite bugs,” I said, “but she loved ‘em so much they ended up gittin’ her. Cryin’ shame, – but I guess if you live by the beetle, you sometimes die by the beetle.
“Now, what in the Sam Hill did y’all want again?”
“Annie Hooper,” he said.
“Why, there ain’t nobody here by that name, son,” I said. “Hot dang, why in tarnation would y’all be callin’ here askin’ for someone I ain’t never heered of?”
Click. The caller hung up.
I took my next victim on a trip to New York.
“Hulloh?” I said.
“May I speak to Annie Hooper,” the caller said.
“Yeah, yeah, hold on a minute there, will yuz,” I said.
I leaned away from the phone and yelled out.
“Hey Annie, there’s some clown on the phone who wants to speak to yuz,” I said. “Whaddaya mean, who? Geez, I don’t know, just some guy who asked for yooz. OK, OK – geez, keep your shorts on.”
I put the phone back by my face.
“Sorry man, but Annie sez sheez not here,” I said. “Is there anything I can do for yooz?”
“Uh, your loan has been approved,” the caller said.
“Loan? I don’t need no loan over here,” I said. “But I’ll tell you what, if yooz need some cash, I can hook you up with this guy named Luigi who works the lower east side and he’ll take real good care of ya. Yooz just make sure to pay him back on time, cuz you don’t want to end up wearing no concrete shooz at the bottom of no river.”
Click. I guess he didn’t need a loan either.
Late in the day, it was time for the sheriff to put an end to it all. Cue serious, monotone voice.
“Hello, this is sheriff Jones,” I said.
“May I speak to Annie Hooper please,” a male guinea pig said.
“No you may not,” I said, “but as an officer of the law I am obligated to speak to your supervisor. Connect me with him, NOW.”
“Uh, y-y-yes sir,” he said.
About 15 seconds went by. A man came on the line who had a less pronounced accent and pulled the American name card.
“Hello this is the supervisor,” he said. “My name is Daniel Livingston; how may I be of assistance?”
“Mr. Livingston,” I said, “the phone number your people keep dialing today belongs to a business, and nobody here has heard of Annie Cooper. I am told by workers in this office that well over 25 calls have been received today from your callers. This will stop immediately or I will initiate corrective measures.”
“Yes sir,” he said. “I’m sorry, sheriff Jones, if we have caused any inconvenience.”
“What is the name of your firm, and where are you located?” I said.
“The company is called Smart Loan, and we are in Stockton, California,” he said.
“10-4,” I said. “We have no problem at this point, but we will if the calls continue.”
Click. Sheriff Jones’ work was done. Of course, another call came in after only about two or three minutes, and they continued till quitting time.
I Googled “Smart Loan Stockton,” and about a dozen payday loan companies showed up as being based in the city. That might be true, but I’ll bet their call cronies are a long way away from California’s Central Valley.
Whatever the case, there were likely several conversations in one particular far-away call center about the crazy Americans being called during that shift.
Annoyingly, our office received many more calls from the same band of swindlers the next day, and a fair number more the day after that. Thankfully, the frequency of the calls declined on a daily basis from then on, and the main blitz is long past. But we still get a call for Ms. Cooper every now and then.
It will be nice when they cease for good. Good riddance, “Smart Loan” dummies.
Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.