#37 Taking Power
September 3, 2015
How to listen:
Subscribe (it’s free!) in your favorite podcast app.
Chris complained about his cable company on Twitter. He was surprised to get a phone call demanding he delete the tweets or else be banned from the service. PJ looks into the story, and things get much stranger. Also, a new Yes Yes No.
Our theme song is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. Our ad music is by Build Buildings. Our Super Tech Support closing theme is by Macroform.
Leon's tweet discussed in our Yes Yes No.
Stamps.com (offer code 'reply')
Squarespace (offer code 'reply')
Fanduel (offer code 'reply
PJ: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m PJ Vogt. This week we're back again. Back to the world of the internet. We have a story about a phone call and it involves Comcast, a company that's sort of famous for their bad customer service. A lot of people see Comcast as this big powerful company that can and will do whatever it wants to its customers. Being a Comcast customer can make you feel infuriatingly weak. Like an angry mosquito buzzing in the ear of a giant. One of those mosquitoes is a guy named Chris Adams, a cinematographer in Nashville. And Chris wanted a discount on his Comcast bill. The company said no and so he posted a tweet, complaining that it hadn't worked out. Comcast then actually did give him the discount and so he was happy. Happy until a few months later when his phone rang.
CHRIS ADAMS: Yeah so I got this call and I answer the phone and this woman says her name was Kendra and she was with Comcast and she said she was with their I believe she said social media team, something along those lines. She said that she had seen that I had posted a tweet about a negative experience I had had with Comcast and so she wanted to know if that issue had been resolved. So I told her, Yeah I’m pretty sure the issue was resolved. And she said, Okay well, since your issue has been resolved, I was hoping that maybe we could get you to delete the tweet because you know it is slanderous towards Comcast.
PJ: She said it was slanderous towards comcast?
PJ: Here on Earth, companies usually don’t call their customers to complain about critical tweets. And this call only got stranger.
CHRIS: And then she launched into this whole tangent about how if I had tweeted something bad about an ex-girlfriend like, Oh this girl is being such a dickhole and then later on you got back together with her, she would be really offended if that tweet was still there.
PJ: Did she use the word dickhole?
CHRIS: She used the word dickhole. You know, I kept going as if she was crazy and she was like, Sir I just finished our two-week training and I'm literally reading right off of the script. And she said, it just doesn't sound you’re very loyal to Comcast after we've fixed this issue for you. And I was like, I’m not loyal to Comcast. I’m loyal to whoever will give me the best deal. And she was like, Well you don’t seem like the kind of customer we want. Okay. Basically it got to the point where she was like, Sir I cannot end this session until the tweet is deleted and I was like, Well I'm not going to delete it and she was like, Well if that's the case we will put a note on your file and you will either be fined or removed from Comcast as a customer and I was just like, What?! Are you serious? I was so mad and I was like, You know what, fine, I will delete the tweet just for you.
PJ: And so, he did. With Kendra sitting on the other side of the phone, Chris deleted the tweet. After all, he was a mosquito. And besides, Chris had a plan for how this whole insane phone call could actually work out in his favor.
CHRIS: I don’t know if you saw this I think it was on Gizmodo a couple months ago but Comcast accidentally changed one of their customer's names to like "asshole" and left it on their statement, and so he got a billing statement in the mail that said "asshole" on it and so he called and you know got free Comcast for life basically.
PJ: Actually, turns out it was two years. But still, not bad.
CHRIS: Yeah. So at that point I was just thinking, I'm going to cash this in.
PJ: But then, Kendra told him actually, she wanted him to delete more of his tweets.
CHRIS: Like are you kidding me? I was like, Which tweets do you want me to delete? Let me find them.
PJ: Kendra told him to delete any conversation that had referenced the tweet that had been deleted.
CHRIS: And so I'm literally trying to find them and she was like, Sir are you just playing dumb with me? Do you think I'm stupid? Like the tweets are right there. So I just hung up at that point because I was like this is so annoying.
PJ: Chris did what you do when you have a bad experience with a company, the thing that had gotten him in trouble in the first place. He tweeted about it. Somebody else chimed in and they said that they didn’t think the call he’d gotten had come from Comcast. Chris checked with Comcast and they confirmed it. Whoever he’d talked to, was not a Comcast rep. It was a stranger. A stranger who for some reason wanted to pretend they worked for an internet company and convince Chris to delete a bunch of his tweets. This was bizarre. Who would somebody want to do that and why?
CHRIS: Like I really want to know what point of it was? Like what they were trying to accomplish.
PJ: He’s got one theory. That maybe the person who called was a scammer. but the scam had just somehow gone completely off the rails.
CHRIS: You know maybe she was trying to get me to cancel my service and then she was going to ask for information. I mean that was my best guess..
PJ: And she had just screwed it up because she'd been so rude, you'd hung up before it could happen?
CHRIS: Right, yeah.
PJ: We looked up the phone number the call had originated from, but it was just a generic Skype number. Dead end. We were able to find out though, that whoever had run this fake customer support scam on Chris, they’d actually borrowed that idea.
PJ: -from its inventor.
BRAD CARTER: One second. Can you hear me?
PJ: Yeah. When the phone rang over here and I picked it up the caller ID said Walmart.
BRAD: Yeah, it does that. I have all these pre-programmed caller ID things. Say I'm pretending to be with Comcast, I will make my phone number show 1-800-COMCAST.
PJ: And how many preloaded fake companies do you have in your thing?
BRAD: It's called SIP client it runs on a different computer than I'm on right now and it's just a drop down box and I can just choose one. You know, I have a few area codes spread around the country. So if I just need to make a quick call and want my caller ID to show up as California, I have some California number in there and I have a payphone at the Portland airport in Oregon.
PJ: So this is Brad Carter, I don't know where he lives and I'm pretty sure it's not his real name. And that system that Brad uses, Brad could use it for a lot of illegal stuff, but Brad says he's not into that. He's into prank phone calls. He's a prank phone call da Vinci. Brad says that the scam Kendra ran on Chris, that's one of his inventions.
BRAD: I don't mean to brag but I pioneered that years ago and everyone does it now.
PJ: What do you mean you pioneered it?
BRAD: I think in 2010 maybe, I think I saw someone complain on Twitter about something and I thought, Oh I wonder if I can find other people that complain and give them a call and it turned out to be a really easy thing to do.
PJ: How long have you been prank calling people?
BRAD: I guess I started when I was probably under ten. My older brother started making prank calls with me. And he grew out of it and I didn't and now I'm forty-two and still doing it.
PJ: Brad told me that back in the nineties, when Jenni Ringley started the first webcam, he used to prank call her. He can't remember what he would say. He just remembered the thrill of watching a person on a screen, somewhere far away walk across a room because of a phone call he'd made. And these days, Brad can use the power of phones to affect massive companies. He told me about another prank call tactic that he likes to use.
BRAD: I'll call up a Domino's location somewhere in the country and I'll say, Hey this is the corporate office? We're having problems with your computer. Can you give me a bunch of your customer's names and phone numbers who just ordered pizzas. And they'll do it. It's really really easy. Which is kind of scary.
BRAD: I stick to the easy ones. Comcast'll do it.
PJ: Really? Comcast is easy?
BRAD: Oh yeah. you can call Comcast and say, Hey I'm in a different department and you're having computer problems. So pull up the last few orders you did and give me all the information from them.
PJ: And they'll do it? They've done it?
BRAD: Oh yeah. Most of the time they'll do it.
PJ: It's not hard to imagine somebody with much more malicious intentions taking Brad's techniques and using them to take people's money. Brad said he didn't know who had used his customer service trick but he promised to reach out to his friends and see if any of them might know who was behind it. Meanwhile-
PUBLIC RELATIONS PROFESSIONAL: PJ?
PUBLIC RELATIONS PROFESSIONAL: PJ, meet Matt. Matt meet PJ.
PJ: Hey Matt.
MATT MOLESKI: How are you?
PJ: We took our question right to the top. Matt Moleski is Comcast’s Head of Security. His job is to protect his customers privacy against hackers and scammers and people like Kendra. And that requires a small army.
MATT: So in my team we have approaching 100 persons that are working on this
PJ: Wow. I don’t think I pictured. I think I pictured like six people.
MATT: No it’s probably, I mean it's one of the largest, I'm sure in the industry.
PJ: And what's your typical day at Comcast, what's it like?
MATT: Oh it's you know, unicorns and rainbows.
Matt hates any threat to his customer's security, whether it's an actual attempt at fraud or just a prank. He kind of sees them all in the same category. ANd he really hates this techniques that Brad invented.
MATT: You know I don't know if frustrated quite captures the level of anger that I experience when I see something like that, but really more so for the customers themselves who have been exploited and whose trust has been betrayed, that's the type of stuff that keeps us up at night.
PJ: I pointed out to Matt that in some ways Comcast itself was to blame, since if they did have a better customer service reputation, their customers wouldn’t be so quick to believe that a Comcast employee might call them a dickhole. And Matt said, sure. Comcast’s past mistakes are a tool that the scammers use.
MATT: They're leveraging the fact that in the public there have been stories of poor customer service experiences. Some of those things that are out there, if those things that are true and have occurred in the way they're described, then we've done some of that to ourselves. And now it's how do we recover from that? Which as we've said publicly we're working to correct and we're spending hundreds of millions towards that effort.
PJ: I talked to Matt for an hour. And in that hour, I felt something I really didn’t expect to. I felt sympathy. For Comcast. Comcast is powerful, but talking to Matt, I realized that their size also makes them vulnerable. Comcast has 22 million broadband customers. Matt’s job is to keep all of them safe. When he describes a typical day at work, it sounds like he's a general leading a country through a war.
MATT: You come in, you meet with your team, you try to understand what if any new threats are sort of emerging. There's always something different for us to focus on at any point in the day. We’re a big target, you know.
PJ: I kept asking Matt to speculate on who might have called Chris. He said he didn't know who it was but even if he did, I have a feeling that he wouldn't want to give his enemy the dignity of a name.
MATT: It's an ever changing world, we sort of live in a chaotic balance between good and evil, the bad guys that are out there are trying to make money off our customers, exploit them for profit or for jokes. But we sort of embrace that role, and we hope it helps our customers overtime understand the value of the service that we offer.
PJ: So we were stuck. Until a few days later, when Brad, our prank caller, got back to us. He'd reached out to some friends who also make prank calls. And he said there was one person who he wanted to us talk to. Her name was Mistress Morgan. I sent her an email, and in the meantime I googled her and found a video she’d made.
MISTRESS MORGAN: Oh god you’re back here again? Back to the world of the internet? Where the ladies don’t have to actually see how pathetic and small your little cock is?
PJ: Turns out she's an online dominatrix. A fairly hardcore one. She sort of looks like Amy Winehouse, sometimes she has long dark hair, other times she has long blonde hair. Yesterday she tweeted that her boobs aren't real but she is, losers. And that she's your worst nightmare. She’s the creator of such videos as "Paid to Smoke and Ignore you” which is eight dollars and ninety nine cents and “Face it, You're a Boot-licking Pervert Freak”, which goes for seven ninety-nine.
MISTRESS MORGAN: You’re always going to pay gorgeous women like me to humiliate your lame ass.
PJ: It was not immediately clear to me what this:
MISTRESS MORGAN: “Get licking you little foot bitch”
PJ: -had to do with comcast. But as someone who's never been humiliated by a professional, I had a lot of questions.
PJ: How did you find out that you were good at this?
MISTRESS MORGAN: At online dominatrix?
MISTRESS MORGAN: I don't know. Maybe I've always just been a bossy bitch. I don't know I guess I also like to think I'm pretty good at reading people. A lot of the times, and I know it probably sounds a little crazy. But I'm able to even discern what industry they work in, within the first few minutes of talking to them on the phone. And I'll get it right at least eighty percent of the time.
PJ: Another specialty of Mistress Morgan's is what’s called a blackmail contract. Say you're a guy who's always wanted to try having sex with another man. But you've been too scared. You'll make a contract with Mistress Morgan. You'll give her humiliating pictures of yourself, if you don't follow through, she'll send those to your boss. Morgan says domintarixing is a ton of work. Sometimes she can have fourteen hour days. Although recently, she's been cutting back.
MISTRESS MORGAN: I've been kind of feeling a little burnt out with the dominatrix stuff in the last few months but I've also been doing a crap ton of prank calls so I've been working way way way less than I normally do.
PJ: So, prank calls. Prank Calls are Mistress Morgan’s new passion. She doesn’t make any money from them, but she loves them. Spends hours on them every day. And this isn't because she has this huge vendetta against Comcast. She's Canadian. They don't even have Comcast there. Instead, she likes to do prank calls because they are really fun.
PJ: And when it's fun, when a prank call is really working, what does it feel like?
MISTRESS MORGAN: It gets really exciting, I know that sounds a little silly but yeah, when you get someone to do what you’re wanting them to do or else it goes a completely different way it’s exhilarating.
PJ: And this is the thing that surprised me the most, the reason Mistress Morgan loves doing prank calls, it's not just that they're funny, although they are. It's not just that she likes having power over strangers, although she does. For Morgan, the real reward for all of this is an incredibly wholesome reward: friendship.
MISTRESS MORGAN: There's like a really massive great community. I found a whole sort of, it sounds kinds of cheesy but a family of friends that i never otherwise would have talked to or even got to know.
PJ: It turns out that the same way that Gimlet is a network for podcasters, there's also a network for these prank calls: Prank Call Nation.
GLOBAL CHAOS RADIO: Global Chaos Radio contains adult language, adult content, and psychological nudity.
PJ: You can download Prank Call Nation shows, you can watch them live on Mixlr. You can see them on Youtube. And they have a ton of shows. Party Time with Laugh Track Matt and Zax, Mop Riding with Dwight. Madhouse live with Carlito. Brad Carter has a show with Prank Call Nation called the Snow Plow show.
SNOW PLOW SHOW: ...of you guys leaving notes on car windows...
PJ: And Morgan now has her own show.
MISTRESS MORGAN: Hello people. It's Mistress Morgan. Hope you guys are all doing fantastic.
PJ: The audiences for these shows aren't huge. But you get the feeling that the hosts are also just doing them for each other.
MISTRESS MORGAN: We do conferences almost every night.
PJ: And when you say conferences, will it be on Skype, is it?
MISTRESS MORGAN: Yeah. We do Skype conferences, almost on a nightly basis. At least for a few hours every night.
PJ: Is it like I had a good call today? Or is it like I'm worried about my job, what do people talk about?
MISTRESS MORGAN: No usually, we actually we do more prank calls.
PJ: So I described Chris's call to Morgan and i asked her if it rang a bell.
MISTRESS MORGAN: Yes, yes. That, I know exactly what call you're talking about actually.
PJ: And the reason that Morgan does remember this call and remembers it fondly, is because she has this friend Macron. And Macron also likes to prank and he lives in England. So if Morgan stays up really late at night in Vancouver and Macron's awake in England they can find this window of time where they can connect, halfway across the world to bug some random dude from Nashville. Chris was the third wheel to their relationship. He just didn't know it.
PJ: And what do you think I should tell the guy Chris who sort of sent me on this whole thing, like what do I tell him?
MISTRESS MORGAN: I don't know. You can tell him that it was all a joke and that he didn't pass the test.
PJ: And what was the test?
MISTRESS MORGAN: I don't know, I think to myself if I were to get a call like that, first of all, would a customer-service representative use like dickhole?
CHRIS: Oh yeah. Looking back on it now it's obvious that I shouldn't even have gone along with it but it was just the mood of the day I was in.
PJ: I called Chris back to tell him the truth about Kendra, from Comcast.
PJ: Do you feel at all like you had a non-consensual experience of domination.
CHRIS: I guess I could say that. Yeah, I don't know. I don't feel as though I was dominated although I did delete the tweet which was dumb. So maybe I was.
PJ: I mean that was something that you didn't want to do but you did.
CHRIS: Right, yeah.
PJ: As for Comcast, they can't really win. Chris feels the exact same as he ever did about them. Which is to say, he doesn't like them very much.
CHRIS: I'd give Comcast a C plus.
PJ: Were you satisfied with your customer service from Reply All?
CHRIS: Absolutely. I would give Reply All an A plus.
PJ: Thank you. Oh, also we have tape of the call so we can send you it if you want.
CHRIS: Of the call of her and I?
CHRIS: Oh no. That's the worst. I probably sound like such an idiot.
MISTRESS MORGAN: It seems a little while ago, I guess you were having some issues with Comcast, I was just calling to see if those issues got resolved as of yet.
CHRIS: Oh yeah, they did.
MISTRESS MORGAN: They did. Okay, were they fully resolved to your satisfaction.
CHRIS: Yes, I believe so.
MISTRESS MORGAN: Okay, well that's perfect. Is there any reason why the tweet is still up?
CHRIS: Ummmm I have no idea.
PJ: After the break we have a new Yes Yes No. Stick around.
MISTRESS MORGAN: You know if you were having a fight with a loved one for example and you guys made up and made it better, you wouldn't walk around with them with a shirt that said this person beside me is a real dickhole, or whatever. You know because the situation's already been resolved.
CHRIS: Wow. I couldn't disagree more but I....
ALEX GOLDMAN: And now, back to our show. Welcome once again to Yes Yes No, the segment of the show where we force our boss, who's a guy with stuff to do, to wade headlong into the inanity of the internet and see if he can make heads or tails of it. The answer's usually no.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Very happy to be here. Alright, so I have a tweet here. It's from a guy named Leon. Who has an animated gif that's his Twitter avatar. First of all, I wouldn't have known all that lingo. I feel like you guys have like. I wouldn't have known that lingo. Your student has come far.
PJ: I feel like you're at the level, like the way people speak conversational spanish.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah exactly. I'm conversational internet.
ALEX GOLDMAN: So first read what the tweet actually says.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Alright, and so the tweet says, It's too early for this shit. And then he links to three headlines. One them is from the Guardian and it says "What the terrifying geese vine says about our poultry obsessed culture."
PJ: Oh no.
ALEX BLUMBERG: By Felton Brittenham. Another one says, "My child saw a horrifying video of toy geese and she started crying."
PJ: And what outlet published that second one?
ALEX BLUMBERG: Another one says "The hellish sound of geese toys yelling is a perfect analogy for Trump's campaign. Subhead: Crying fowl, F-O-W-L. Which, I don't even know what this is about but I'm already like, don't do that. Okay. So first of all, PJ Vogt, do you know what this tweet is about?
ALEX BLUMBERG: Alex Goldman, do you know what this tweet is about?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Yes.
PJ: Alex Blumberg, do you know what this tweet is about?
ALEX BLUMBERG: No.
PJ: But I think we're understanding it at the same level which is like the analysis but not the object of the analysis.
ALEX BLUMBERG: You and me? Yeah, I understand that, so something happened on the internet that set off sort of like an outcry and an outpouring of think pieces almost simultaneously.
ALEX BLUMBERG: And the thing seems to have something to do with the vine and geese.
ALEX GOLDMAN: You guys ready?
ALEX BLUMBERG/PJ: Yeah.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Alright. I'm going to M. Night Shyamalan you guys real quick.
PJ: What do you mean? Is this when I find out you've been dead the whole time?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah
ALEX BLUMBERG: He's not here.
ALEX GOLDMAN: So someone posted a video today.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Today!?
ALEX GOLDMAN: I'm pretty sure it was today.
PJ: Oh this is a hot meme. This is right off the meme press.
ALEX GOLDMAN: It was video, it was a YouTube video called "Duck Army." I'm going to play the sound here.
PJ: Wait but he said a vine.
ALEX GOLDMAN: It started as a vine. It's now on Youtube.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Here is duck army in it's entirety. Are you ready?
[SOUND OF DUCK ARMY.]
ALEX GOLDMAN: So for people not in the studio, it a video of someone who found a sort of like a cage at what looks like a department store full of these inflatable squeaking-
ALEX BLUMBERG: A cart. Like a big cart. Like a big sort of like, it's not a shopping cart but it's like sort of like an industrial sized shopping cart where they clearly move merchandise around the floor.
ALEX GOLDMAN: It's filled with these inflatable geese or ducks. And he squeezes one.
PJ: He squeezes one and it makes one funny squeaking noise.
ALEX GOLDMAN: And then he puts his hand into the cart and presses down on all the ducks and you hear the collective inhale of hundreds of duck toys and then they just go "ahahdhghhhhhhhhhhhhh."
PJ: Good reenactment.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Thanks.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Alright.
PJ: We should do a show where you just reenact viral videos. Like America's Most Wanted.
ALEX GOLDMAN: So Leon's tweet was a tweet of a bunch of headlines that were about this.
PJ: Wait and this vine, Now that we've seen it, can we just look at the headlines again?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Yes.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Okay.
PJ: "What the terrifying geese vine says about our poultry obsessed culture." Oh get out of there.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Are you serious?
ALEX GOLDMAN: "My child saw a horrifying video of toy geese and she started crying. Are Memes good if they come at the cost of our children's health?"
PJ: Tell your kid to get off the internet!
ALEX BLUMBERG: Ugh.
ALEX GOLDMAN: "The hellish sound of geese sound of toys yelling is a perfect analogy for Trump's campaign."
PJ: I guarantee you it's not.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Alright.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Alright guys. Now I'm about to Shyamalan you.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Leon made all of those up.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Woah!
ALEX GOLDMAN: Those are all fake headlines that he made as sort of a reaction to the internet's take culture.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Take culture.
ALEX GOLDMAN: There's a thing on the internet, it's called a hot take.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Oh.
PJ: That's when you produce very quickly a sort of disingenuous opinion piece.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Got it.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Why twerking is inappropriate in the wake of the Malaysian airlines crash. Just garbage like that.
PJ: So when someone does something when you can tell that's what they're up to, sometimes you can respond 'hot take."
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right.
ALEX GOLDMAN: So Leon, as a joke, saw this video that had gone viral and was like, you know, I'm wondering what would be just barely plausible enough-
PJ: To trick us!
ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah. Tricked you guys.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah, totally.
PJ: Oh man, I was just bragging this morning about how I don't get tricked by stuff anymore.
AG: It might have been the way I set it up, but I'd like to think that it's just because you got tricked.
PJ: No. I got tricked.
ALEX GOLDMAN: So, the give away is if you look at the names of the authors: Felton Brittenham sounds pretty ridiculously made up. Jessiga Mary Williams. Jessiga with a G. And then Kimathy Branagan.
PJ: Yeah. You don't meet a lot of Kimathy's.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Kimathy.
ALEX GOLDMAN: But everything else about these which are supposedly ran in the Huffington Post-
PJ: Well that's Salon. He's making fun of a specific reader right there.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Salon. And...
PJ: The Guardian.
ALEX GOLDMAN: The guardian seem eminently plausible.
PJ: I feel like there could be, there's probably someone who writes at the Guardian named Felton Brittenham.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Ok. So, I got this.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Alright.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Leon. Leon in a meta-comment about the internet and how it's always rushing to have the hot take think piece about whatever has just happened on the internet, saw the inflatable geese vine, laughed a lot, I have to assume laughed like everybody who saw it. And then immediately set about composing his master tweet condemnation of internet take culture by writing faux think pieces before anybody else could actually write them and tweeting about them saying it's too early for this shit.
ALEX GOLDMAN: That's exactly right.
PJ: That's exactly right.
ALEX GOLDMAN: So, we've been here for a while. Do you feel smarter?
ALEX BLUMBERG: Smarter's not the word I'd use.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Reply All is hosted by PJ Vogt and me, Alex Goldman. We were produced this week by Tim Howard. Sruthi Pinnamaneni, and Phia Bennin. Production assistance from Sylvie Douglis and this is Sylvie's last week at Reply All. We are going to miss her. Thank you very much Sylvie for all your hard work. We were mixed this week by David Herman. Matt Lieber is a jump off a high-dive. Our theme music is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder, our ad music is by Build Buildings. You can find more episodes at iTunes.com/replyall. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next week.