You may have seen a previous post of mine about a phishing attempt that, unusually, took the form of a phone call. It gave me an idea for a story, and here it is, finished off at 1700 words or so. The phisher really did call himself Elvis Winston, though I imagine that was an assumed name for phishing purposes – a nom de scam, if you like…
Elvis Winston is a phisher of men. Or women. He doesn’t mind. What’s important is that someone answers the phone, and what’s even better is that they do what he says.
He stares at the computer screen, which shows the progress of calls made by a random dialler programme. This is the same technology used by cold-calling companies – though they probably have bells and whistles on the software that filter out numbers logged to the Telephone Preference Service and suchlike, and this one doesn’t because there’s no point. The system is automated. If someone picks up, he’s connected to them. And the background colour of the screen flickers rapidly, red-blue-red-blue, to tell him this is happening now.
‘Good morning,’ he says smoothly, ‘I’m calling from Windows Technical Department. We have a report here from your internet service provider that your computer has been causing repeated problems. Your software is infected with a dangerous virus and this could damage your hardware. Can you go online now please and follow my instructions: we can diagnose the problem and clean up your operating system.’
This is of course a series of straight-up lies. The part about being from Windows Technical Department is somewhat true, because what Elvis wants the person on the other end of the phone to do does relate to their computer’s Windows operating system and it is technical. But he’s relying on that person making the imaginative leap, the assumption, that he’s working in a division of Microsoft and that isn’t true. He has no idea which ISP the person is using. He has no idea whether their software is infected. And the instructions he’s going to give them will enable him to ‘clean up’, in a sense. In the sense that he’ll be able to access their personal data, which gets used to run a bunch of scams and, if possible, clean out their bank and savings accounts.
Elvis encounters suspicion. He gets insults followed by the phone being slammed down. He gets threats of being reported to the police or the Telephone Preference Service. It’s all part of a day’s work.
Even so, it’s surprising how many people respond to an authoritative voice, and an urgent threat. It’s surprising, in fact, how many respond with concern and want to co-operate even if they don’t have a computer.
What galls him is that all the time he’s working, he’s not even on minimum wage. The work is strictly commission-only, based on the number of people he can persuade to download the information-gathering trojan they use. The office is set up in the back of some engineering fabrication company that’s skating on the brink of bankruptcy. His notional ‘employer’ is some kind of underworld figure, aided and abetted by a young geek whose first language is not English. It’s better than his previous job – selling pills and wraps of dope on a street corner. But he’s heard about a guy who has an internet shop for second-hand DVDs and old copies of pulp magazines. He needs someone to package the stuff and take it to the post office. Elvis wouldn’t be phoning people all the time, wouldn’t have the aggravation, and he could still sell the odd wrap to the clubbing crowd at weekends.
All this is going through his head as he does his pitch, on autopilot. He keeps going until he gets some kind of response from the person on the line. What he doesn’t expect is:
‘Thank God you’ve called. I don’t know how you got through, I thought they’d cut the phone lines. You’ve got to send us food, and water and medical supplies. And guns. We need to defend ourselves.’
What the fuck? Just stick to the script!
‘So if you can open up the control centre on your version of Windows…’
‘No, listen, I’m serious. You’ll have to avoid suspicion somehow, maybe just load the stuff onto a supermarket truck and offload it at their store.’
‘If you have the control centre open, just click on–’
‘Listen to me! You know the workfare scheme, where people on benefits get forced to work six months for free, just staying on the benefits, with a job interview at the end for a non-existent job because they’ll choose some other poor bastard to work for free? You know most of those jobs are shelf-stacking in supermarkets? They just extended the scheme.’
‘If you have the control–’
‘Just pay attention, dammit! They’ve set up choke points, and a curfew, and anyone who can’t prove they’re in a job is being arrested and taken away. No one knows where. Maybe it’s a concentration camp somewhere. And they’re using guns, shooting people who resist. We’ve got to stop them.’
Elvis has it figured now. He’s talking to a nutter. The people who cause problems, he divides mentally into twats, freaks and nutters. The twats are the ones who threaten to call the police, or whatever. The freaks are the ones who lecture him about how they hate Microsoft, don’t even use Windows, have a Mac or run on Ubuntu or Linux or some other off-brand operating system. And the nutters… It’s not so much a case of what they’re on as what the men in white coats should be injecting them with.
Also he knows about workfare, this thing the government announced a few months back that’s hit the press because people are indeed, as the nutter is saying, being expected to work for supermarkets, stacking shelves, just to qualify for continued welfare benefits. Since Elvis is working completely off the books – this whole ‘Windows Technical Department’ thing being a scam in every sense of the word – he’s on Jobseeker’s Allowance at the same time, and he knows eventually they’ll get round to making him do it as well. Which is why packing second-hand DVDs and pulp mags would be useful, because it’s a proper job.
The guy’s raving about different kinds of guns, how it would be best if he could get a mix of general-purpose handguns and sniper rifles, things that pack a punch because the troops have body armour, and they’ll need RPGs to take out the vehicles.
There’s no mute button on the headset, no way to stop the drivel other than just hang up. Elvis keeps saying ‘Do you have Windows on your screen?’ as thought it’s a mantra, or a programme loop that doesn’t have an exit point.
‘There’s nothing about this on the BBC,’ the guy is saying now. ‘You have to get the word out, let people know about it. Get a message to Al Jazeera.’
Elvis knows a couple of people called Al but doesn’t think either of them would he able to help. One’s an alcoholic and the other’s doing time for an arson he swears he didn’t commit, despite being a professional torcher for bankrupt businessmen.
There are noises coming from the other end of the line now, some kind of garbled argument going on away from the receiver. Then something that sounds like a car backfiring.
‘Hello? Hello? Are you still there? Do you have Windows open on your screen at the moment? Hello?’
The line stays open, but Elvis doesn’t hear anything he can make sense of. Some kind of bubbling, frothing sound. Some scrapes, like furniture being moved around on a wooden floor. Then nothing.
He hangs up.
The random dialler registers this, gives him fifteen seconds and connects him to another line.
‘Good morning,’ he says smoothly, ‘I’m calling from Windows Technical Department. We have a report here…’
He doesn’t get out of there until eight in the evening, walks home in the dark. It’s been raining and the road is slick with reflections off the streetlamps. There’s not as much traffic as usual. He’s almost home, at the junction of South and Admiral, when he has one of those ‘what the fuck?’ moments. Lorries parked across the street, making a roadblock, but no lights on them. There’s a white car, blue and orange flashes on it, parked up. And quite a few people there.
He hugs the sides of the buildings, moves closer. Sees a knot of people around a young guy on the ground, struggling. Someone in uniform on top of him, a knee jammed into the guy’s kidneys, and a flash of silver like he’s trying to cuff his hands.
There’s a crowd gathered around looking ugly.
Oh well. It’s the kind of area where the police come looking for people. The kid might have been picked up on an outstanding warrant, tried to rob someone, just got too verbal with the cops.
That doesn’t explain these other characters, in army uniforms.
The crowd’s common enough, too, in this area. No one round here has any sympathy for the cops.
Then the crowd surges forward and there are scuffles, a melee, the cop who’s got his knee in the guy’s kidney is sent sprawling on the street. The guy he was trying to cuff is suddenly up and running. And there’s a freeze-frame moment of disbelief as half a dozen shots crack out. They don’t sound like the movies or the video games: just ripping sounds like a firecracker being let off, which is a common enough occurrence on these streets.
There’s people running, and people not running who are on the ground. The kid who’d been arrested, he’s one of the ones not running.
The army guys are moving forward, disciplined, weapons ready. One of them reaches the kid and feels for a pulse.
Elvis tries to be invisible. Wishes he’d just walked away when he could.
‘You’ll do,’ the soldier says.
Thirty seconds later he’s on the ground, tasting blood where his lip kissed the tarmac. They’re rifling his pockets.
‘Find anything? Employment ID?’
He doesn’t see who’s asking the question. But they won’t find any ID, will they, because he doesn’t carry any.
‘Just put him down as “undocumented”.’
One of them throws Elvis’s wallet into the bushes on the other side of the road.
‘He’s fucking undocumented now, mate.’
Elvis swears at the nutter he’s spoken to, under his breath. As if the nutter had made it happen just by talking about it. As if it was all the nutter’s fault. And he swears at his job, which made him talk to the nutter in the first place.
But he knows nutters don’t create the world. Politicians do. And they’re worse, because they not only believe what they say, they make everyone else act out their vision of insanity.
I was going to put up an intemperate post about economic policies, but that can wait for another day – not least because I haven’t worked out all the details yet.
In the meantime, this seems interesting and worthwhile. I went back to Fabrika a couple of days ago and discovered they have an interactive exhibition. There’s some neat stuff there including a harp with lasers instead of strings, a sound tree, a video installation that gives ghostly images of people who’ve walked past it (probably mine is one of the faces on it now) and an art scanner installation.
It works like this: artists upload images of their work to a website, artscanner.org; the images are of course available online there directly, but uploading work allows you to download a link in the form of a QR code. You can print off the QR code and stick it on the wall in the gallery, or indeed anywhere else that takes your fancy. There’s a scanner next to the installation so in the gallery it’s easy to scan the codes and the images come up on a screen – outside the gallery, many mobile phones and pad-style computers have cameras so you can take a picture of the code, and they have software that reads the code as well, which will resolve into a clickable web address for the image.
QR codes aren’t new. They started off as security features on tickets, etc. and then became more widely used on all sorts of products. A lot of nightclubs now embed QR codes into their posters and such, so savvy punters can find their way to the place and find out more about events etc. So this isn’t new technology but it’s a new application of the technology that I think would have a much wider application than just one exhibition in one gallery. It could enable people to encounter artwork, stories and a whole bunch of other stuff on their travels – see a code, check it out, find out what that place means or has meant to other people. That kind of thing. It’s not so much a way of bringing the virtual and real worlds together (though it could do that, I guess) but allowing interaction with others based on a very fine-grained sense of space and place.