By Ian Sherr
Four years ago, Jim Browning decided he’d had enough. Like so many of us, he gets incessant calls from scammers, disrupting his day with efforts to trick him into giving them money. But instead of just being annoyed and ignoring his phone, Browning chose to fight back.
He began to study scammers’ tactics and learned that many of them rely on the same script and use most of the same remote control software tools. And he used his skills working on computers by day to program a virtual PC — think of it like a safe and secure copy of a machine running in an app on his real computer. Once a scammer connected with his virtual PC, thinking they’d found another victim, Browning would pretend to struggle with his internet connection as he quietly took remote control of the scammer’s computer.
“They think nothing’s gone wrong,” he says.
From there, he’d download their data, including lists of victims, notes and personal files. He’d also use that connection to the scammer’s computer to listen to their conversations through the phone app they use, sometimes following, and interrupting, a scammer in real time trying to cheat someone. So far, Browning estimates he’s disrupted more than 1,000 scams, spending up to 12 hours per week on the task. Before our chat, Browning was consoling a victim he’d just alerted of another scam he was tracking.
“I’ll never know for sure exactly what the impact of what I’m doing is, but I think it’s still worth doing,” he said. “Even if the police do nothing, which they mostly do, I’m doing something.”
He has his work cut for him. The world of online scams has exploded in recent years — in April, a Harris Poll survey of 2,000 Americans commissioned by the app Truecaller found one in three people said they’d fallen victim to a phone scam, and more than half of them said it happened on more than one occasion. The lost money equates to an estimated $29.8 billion last year, a staggering jump from the $19.7 billion Truecaller estimated for 2019. The scope of gift card fraud, where scammers trick people into buying gift cards and handing over the numbers, is especially difficult to pin down because many victims don’t report the crime. They’re often embarrassed, and unlike identity theft, where there are strong consumer protections in place, there’s almost no way to get their money back.
“They don’t really know who’s holding onto these gift cards,” said Mark Roberts, who helped co-found the startup Leverage in Southern California nearly two decades ago. Back then, the company encouraged people to register their gift cards through his service. In exchange, the site would help people track, manage and swap the cards with other users. The retailers he worked with were aware of gift card scams even back then, Roberts added, but it was small enough that “they mostly didn’t really care.”
Now the fraud has gotten so big that some people’s righteous anger has boiled over into action. Over the past couple of years, a growing cohort of scam baiters have found success using YouTube and other video sites to share their exploits. Attracting millions of subscribers, they lure unsuspecting scammers in, waste their time, take their files and disrupt their operations. Browning and other scam baiters have attracted so much attention that even though many scammers seem to know their names, they also know they’re scraping just the tip of the iceberg. But if they can disrupt even a fraction of the frauds out there, Browning says, anyone keeping a scammer distracted means protecting another victim.
“I consistently stop scams nearly every single day,” he says.
Browning began uploading videos to YouTube initially as an easy way to provide evidence to internet service providers and law enforcement. He’d highlight the scams using screen recording software to show how the scams work, with a methodical commentary in his low, strongly accented voice. He hoped his proof would spark internet disconnects and police raids. But over time, he attracted more than 3.5 million subscribers, with notable jumps since the pandemic.