Snake-oil by phone

A reader (and commenter) writes:

I realize you're probably sick to death of hearing about PFC scams, but this might amuse you anyway: I just got a phone call from a heavily-accented call-center voice purporting to be part of an energy-saving campaign by my electricity provider, Hydro-Quebec. They promised to send me a gadget which I would plug into any outlet and which would reduce my electricity consumption 30-40%.

(Initially I thought it might be a Kill-A-Watt or similar, which I would actually use, or could if my ancient inefficient appliances didn't belong to my landlord.)

When I asked how it worked, they claimed it contained "three special capacitors" and that it reduced some sort of ill-defined stray currents in my wires, and that it would reduce what was read on my electricity meter by the above 30-40%. Initially they gave the impression they were going to just send it to me, which I would have gleefully accepted so that I could dissect it and demonstrate its non-function. But it transpired that they were actually offering me a "great deal" and a "once in a lifetime offer" - yes, those are the words they used - of 50% off on its $400 price.

Once it was clear I wasn't going to get a piece of hardware for skewering, I suddenly found I had better things to do. I called Hydro-Quebec and they know there are people doing this, they had a security department number to hand (which referred me to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Office, which isn't open), but I was kind of surprised to get it at my home number.


Yes, I am just a little tired of bogus power savers, having written about them here, here, here and here on Dan's Data, and here, here, here, here and here on this blog.

But it bears re-re-re-repeating, here and elsewhere, because people are still selling these things (and removing all doubt in the comments of relevant blog posts...), and innocent people are still buying them. The more frequently this message is repeated, the more of a public service it does:

Magic power savers that're somehow meant to substantially reduce your household (or small business) electricity bill by hazily-described means involving capacitors, power factor or even stranger alleged technology are, without exception, scams. Power factor is a real thing and so is power factor correction, but household and small-business electricity consumers are almost never billed by power factor - spinning-disc electricity meters can't even measure it - and magic one-size-fits-all power-factor-correcting gizmoes don't actually even do what they're supposed to. The components inside these things aren't necessarily even connected. So even if you were billed by power factor, these gadgets would not improve it.

I have, to date, not had the pleasure of some guy with an Indian accent trying to sell me a magic power saver over the phone. Indian dudes ringing the doorbell and trying to get me to change my electricity supplier, yes; phone solicitations for power savers, no.

(The door-to-door guys are probably having a pretty bad time. I presume someone's making out like a bandit hiring Indian kids for a "working holiday" in beautiful Australia, then leaving the unfortunate workers stuck in yet another of those godforsaken semi-scammish door-to-door sales jobs that only pay by commission and have all sorts of outrageous requirements designed to soak up what money the poor bastards do manage to make. The door-to-door electricity guys, here in Australia where the power industry is still well enough regulated that there are no real "scam" providers as far as I know, are kind of like the Kirby vacuum or Cutco knife salespeople, selling a legitimate, if overpriced, product in an unpleasant way. They are, at least, not selling white-van loudspeakers, or fake health insurance to grandmas.)

My household has, however, been enjoying the attentions of another breed of Indian-accent phone-scammers. These guys, invariably identifiable thanks to the distinctive autodialer pause when you pick up the phone, were calling us a couple of times a week, though I think they've been quiet for a little while now. We may have finally persuaded them to stop, or perhaps they got busted. Or, more plausibly, they've submerged and departed for a while to avoid being busted.

Aaaaanyway, these guys usually say they're from Microsoft or something, and tell you there's something terribly wrong with your computer, and you need to go to their Web site and install some malware to fix the problem.

Anne (my Anne, not the Anne at the top of this post) has frequently asked these callers why they do not seek honest employment. The next time I pick up a call from them, I think I'll pretend to be racist.

"Is there, do you know, a single honest man anywhere in India? Clearly the British need to return and take you naughty little children firmly in hand once again. You silly little dusky monkeys, bless your souls, simply cannot grasp the white man's honour, can you? It's really not your fault; you simply cannot tell right from wrong. We blame ourselves, you know. It was foolish of us to trust you, with your tiny, adorable brains, to govern yourselves."

(Suggested background music.)

Just wasting a telephone scammer's time is small potatoes. We must aim, instead, to induce incoherent rage.

15 Responses to “Snake-oil by phone”

  1. Bern Says:

    I'm happy to say the missus (who's not especially computer literate, though not a complete novice) correctly declined to cooperate with one of the Microsoft support scammers last year.
    A friend played along with a Microsoft scam call a month or so back, on a VM. Full account (including link to video) here:

  2. Popup Says:

    We have some kind of protection against 'commercial' calls here in Switzerland, but there is of course the loophole of 'research'.

    Last time a beauty-product company called me for a 'survey', I instead did some digging to find out the owner of the company behind it. Turns out he had a listed phone number! I decided to conduct my own 'survey' to find out what telemarketing executives think about being disturbed at home at night.

    Unfortunately there was never any answer - I think the number I found must have been incorrect.

    I like the idea of turning the tables on the spammers, tough.

    I have been toying with the idea of setting up a website linking telemarketing campaigns with private phone numbers of the executives who are ultimately behind them.

  3. Anne Says:

    Coincidentally, later the same day, I got a phone call from "Microsoft", basically of the type you're describing. My patience already having been exhausted, I just told them I owned no Microsoft computers and hung up on them.

    I'm not sure abusing the poor phone operator is really fair, though; they may not even know they're running a scam. The person you have a problem with is the malware purveyor paying them cents an hour to sit in front of the phone. When I'm feelin stroppy, I ask telemarketers whether they know about the Canadian Do Not Call list (which I'm on).

    As for the PFC scam, I am currently billed using a rotating-disc meter, so it's definitely not going to help. But Hydro-Quebec really wants to move to a new digital meter, and I'm not totally sure how it responds to power factor. Probably the same way as my current meter, but they don't say. Their goal is to avoid meter readers having to actually go into people's basements to find out how much electricity people have used, so the new meters transmit the information wirelessly (and encrypted). Which makes the new meters the subject of public protest because, um, radiation! Evil!

  4. koolraap Says:

    Auto-diallers: I generally either hang up immediately, or just talk over them straight away, "Please take my number off your database please and don't call back ever again".

    As for annoying Indians, I find telling them Tendulkar's rubbish is a pretty good start.

  5. TwoHedWlf Says:

    I can't be bothered trying to screw around with the telemarketers anymore. Until someone invents a way to transmit earspiders through the phone I just hang up on them.

  6. Jonathan Says:

    The bank phones me on my mobile to ask about life insurance and such. They use the autodialer and I get nothing but silence about 75% of the time.

    They have caller-id so I used my candybar phone to give them a very quiet ringtone. I guess I am more technologically adept than Hector from The Slap

  7. RichVR Says:

    I refused to give my credit card number to a Dell operator overseas to make a late payment on my laptop. I insisted on speaking to an operator in the USA. I had to go through the same thing several times before I got one. They all insisted, in a thick accent, that they were in the USA.

    When I told friends and family they said I was crazy. I said that I didn't want to give my credit card info to someone in another country. If it was stolen I would have zero recourse. They said I was being racist.

  8. hagmanti Says:

    The reason you're being called a racist is because you're only worried about the Indians doing it.

    You don't think people making min wage in a call center in Backwoods USA (or in the Outback, AU) are doing the same thing?

    I'll bet the guy in Backwoods USA makes more money when he sells your information, and faces less serious penalties if caught.

    If your credit card is stolen, your recourse is that you have zero liability for unauthorized charges made more than 50 miles from your house. As a matter of practice, most credit companies don't enforce the radius.

    I love the way credit card companies have managed to convince people that the credit card industry's lax security practices necessitate those people practicing more security than the companies themselves find economical to do.


    • TwoHedWlf Says:

      From what I've heard, I don't think the CC companies are really even liable for any costs, it's the retailer that is. If your CC is used at say a gas station in BFE it's the gas station's responsibility to ensure it's you using the CC and if it's not they eat the charges. Visa isn't going to pay them for it. CC is pretty much the safest there is. Debit cards are what I'd worry about, but you can rarely use them anywhere but in person. And I've been told, when I was working in the call center taking lost/stolen card calls that with debit cards here if any money is stolen off a card, "Not the bank's problem, they had to have your PIN and if you shared it any loss is your problem."

      • RichVR Says:

        I was under the impression that if the fraud happened in the US I had a chance of recovering my money. And that overseas there was none. I stand corrected. I guess I was indeed being racist.

        • TwoHedWlf Says:

          Until you've paid your CC bill you haven't "lost" any money. And even after that the CC company will reverse any charges up to some few months. Which would just be basically a credit on your bill. Probably a lot more specific little details but that's the general idea.

        • hagmanti Says:

          Okay, you may have just
          1) Listened to something someone else said
          2) Thought about your own position.

          You clearly are not qualified to be on the Internet. Step away from your keyboard.

          (Just to be clear, I didn't think you were a racist, at least not based on the previous post. I did think you were worried about something you didn't need to be...)

          In the past three years, my credit cards have been used (without my consent) to pay a quarter's tuition at Harvard University (well, approximately $12,000) and to pay for a dating service. Credit card company called me both times, charges never even showed on my bill.


          • Stark Says:

            Oh, Rich should definitely be banned from "teh Internets" but not for being a rational and intelligent human with an open mind and willingness to change a stance based on evidence! No, he should be banned for things much worse...things which shall go unnamed. He knows what he did.

            Oh, hi Rich, didn't see you lurking there...... ;)

            Also, is anybody else the least bit amused by somebody using a stolen CC number to pay for a quarter at Harvard? I sincerely hope it was Harvard Law. Then again, if it was just the business school, well, I guess they are already training in how to run a modern bank so using a stolen CC to pay for class is probably something you can get work experience credits for.

            Note: I may be slightly disillusioned and embittered at the global fiscal establishment. Just a bit.


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