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On the Trail of the Robocall King-Part 1

An investigator set out to discover the source of one scammy robocall. Turns out, his target made them by the millions.

PART ONE

Brad Young, a lawyer at TripAdvisor, arrived at the company’s offices in Needham, Massachusetts, on October 12, 2015, to find an email from his boss, Seth Kalvert, the company’s general counsel. In itself that wasn’t strange. As a travel site built on crowdsourced wisdom, where hundreds of millions of ordinary people post reviews and rate businesses, TripAdvisor is susceptible to fakery meant to inflate the ranking of a so-so restaurant or stain the reputation of a storied hotel. Young oversaw a group responsible for fending off these efforts, so he frequently got questions from Kalvert about con artists, cunning new deceits, and other shady corners of the law.

But this email was different. Kalvert’s wife had received a robocall offering an exclusive vacation deal as a reward for her loyal accumulation of “Trip­Advisor credits.” That would have been nice if TripAdvisor credits were a thing, but they weren’t. The call was also odd because TripAdvisor didn’t engage in telemarketing, much less robocalling. Kalvert wanted Young to look into it.

The anti-fraud team was, in Young’s words, “the company’s secret sauce,” adept at tackling every deception the internet had to offer. But the hustle meant to entice Kalvert’s wife relied on old-school telephony. Cracking it would require an unusual set of skills. Luckily, Young knew just the person to turn to.

Fred Garvin had joined TripAdvisor’s anti-fraud team eight years earlier. He’d been employed in a series of short-term jobs: mechanic, audio editor, anything that seemed interesting enough to hold his attention for a while. He was out of work when a friend saw an opening for a content moderator at TripAdvisor and urged Garvin to apply. He worked at home for a while, under the radar, but pretty soon managers started noticing his obsessive streak and a knack for what he called “research.” As a kid growing up in a small New England town in the pre-internet era, he’d tracked down the addresses of celebrities so that he could request an autograph; he got a postcard signed by the B-52s and one from Mr. Bill, a famous Saturday Night Live character from the 1970s. (The name “Fred Garvin” is another SNL reference, one of several professional aliases he adopted to protect his identity from the scammers and fraudsters he chases. It comes from an old sketch with Dan Aykroyd as Fred Garvin, male prostitute.) Garvin’s manager recommended him for a position with the anti-fraud team. “He’s the most cynical person I’ve ever met,” she said. “He will question everything.” He was a perfect fit.

Young asked Garvin to look into the suspicious phone call. He said he figured it was probably the work of “some two-bit hustler” and wouldn’t take long to sort out. Garvin, though, had only one phone call to go on, and a simple question: Who was on the other end of the line?

PART TWO TO COME

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