Jim Browning is not his real name, rather a secret identity. Working in IT by day, by night he’s a virtual vigilante hunting cyber criminals.
In response to endless spam emails and robocalls telling us we’re experiencing difficulties with an online banking or shopping account, Browning decided fight back. He lets himself be scammed then turns the tables.
If they’ve hacked into his machine, he can hack into theirs; find out where they’re from, call them by their real name – even have pictures of them displayed as his desktop background to give them a shock when they try to take control of his computer.
Browning makes videos of his crime fighting exploits and has hundreds of thousands of followers on YouTube. They are bizarrely gripping. The scams are often ingenious, easy to see why anyone could fall victim. Then just as a scammer thinks they’ve gotten away with a con, the power shifts as Browning has them on the ropes.
Cybercrime has escalated through the pandemic now that people, tech savvy or not, have to rely on the internet for almost everything. In 2021, 45 million people were targeted by scam calls and texts. Which? reported a 33 per cent rise in incidents with consumers conned out of £2.3 billion during that (largely locked down) year.
So The Big Issue meets Browning on Zoom, to delve into the dark world of cybercrime to understand how we can protect ourselves.
The Big Issue: Just who are you?
Jim Browning: I do have a proper day job. It’s in IT as you can probably imagine. I know about computers and networks and so on. My night time job is going after scammers and I put YouTube videos online about my exploits.
What’s the what’s the origin story of this superhero?
So unfortunately, it’s not like a Batman type story. I find scams fascinating, full stop. I work from home a fair bit, particularly over the last couple of years like a lot of people. I was getting of scam phone calls. The advice is usually, ignore them and hang up. But I thought with my background in IT, surely I could do something about these calls. They do have a weakness, which is the fact that they will try to connect to my computer. And when they do I can find out who these people are.
Do you get excited when you come across a new scam?
Oh yeah, for sure. A lot of this scams are very scripted. So anytime I come across something new it’s definitely fascinating. I like different sorts of scams. I’m looking at a couple at the moment. You know, those letters you get from people who say you’ve won a fortune. It’s rare to get an insight into those types of scams, because normally, someone does all of this offline.
How long does it take to break a scam? How many hours does each video represent?
A lot of my evenings are taken up with this. In some ways, I’m fortunate because a lot of the scams are aimed at people in the USA, and their daytime is when they’re targeted so that is our evening. I probably spend too much time. But it’s a hobby so for me it’s time well spent.
Some scammers I’ve been watching for at least six months before I would put a video out about them. Whenever I do find relevant details about who’s running scams, I pass information to police in the hope that they will do something. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. All in all, it can take months and months of work to even get a video live.
Why is it difficult for police to take any action?
Most of the scams I uncover are from outside the UK. A lot of these call centres are based in India, there’s very little happens in that country. Anytime I do report it, it seems to be swept under the carpet. It can be quite frustrating.
The scams and the people behind them are clearly very intelligent, what sense do you have of perpetrators?
You get the odd one or two who will be open and honest with you. If you ask, look why are you doing this, it’s a scam, they will give you loads of different reasons. The main one is, India’s a poor country, high unemployment, low wages. If you get into a scam call centre, compared a legitimate business, you will be paid so much more. Now, you maybe get a fraction of what you scam but you earn an awful lot of money very quickly. And you can convince yourself that you’re stealing money from a very rich western country, I can see people doing that.
Everybody has their own story about why they got into it. But at the end of the day, it is really just greed. I can see what they do on their computers and there’s very few people who seem to be on the breadline.
What affect has the pandemic had on scams as more older and vulnerable people are using the internet with little experience?
Certainly older people are the prime target for most of these scam calls. I’ve seen scammers take lists and filter them for people over 60. That’s because they are the demographic most likely to fall for it. It is really just a numbers game for them. The vast majority of the day is people hanging up on them. But they will eventually get someone who’s vulnerable. In the UK and US people are so used to receiving these calls, they know just to hang up immediately. Scammers are moving to other countries. I’m monitoring a group at the moment who are targeting the Czech Republic and Norway. And although they can’t speak Czech or Norwegian, they are still attempting the same scam in English in the hope that they can get people who are unaware.
The biggest scam call seems to be from people impersonating Amazon. Why can’t one of the richest companies do anything?
It used to be Microsoft a few years ago, now it is Amazon. They’re so prevalent. And I’m a little surprised Amazon aren’t trying the legal route to try and do something. I hear these phone calls all the time. Even if [a victim] doesn’t use Amazon what they’ll immediately say is, well someone has registered an Amazon account in your name using your details. Eventually they’ll want access to your computer.
You were recently victim of a scam yourself, does that show it really can happen to anyone?
Anyone can be scammed, the circumstances have to be right. Someone tried to take over my YouTube channel, basically to steal the revenue that you get. What this particular person did was impersonate Google, who own YouTube, and they were quite convincing. They’d found was a flaw in the chat services that Google offer and were able to make it look like a legitimate email. So initially, I did fall for this.
So the person was just trying to steal money, they weren’t someone out for revenge?
They didn’t even know who I was. I sent them a couple of links when I figured out it was a scam, said could you click on this and they did. I was able to find out where the scammer was based, in Turkey, but when he figured out that he wasn’t getting any money out of me, he disappeared.
Are you quite famous within this scammer community? In some videos you disguise your voice to sound like an old woman.
Yeah, I have to use that because scammers do recognise me. I can get access to scammers’ computers, see what they’re looking at on their screen, what they’re typing and some of them have been watching my videos. I have to change my voice. As the scammer is concerned, I’ll sound like an old woman. That helps me out quite a bit.
You’re taking part in a new BBC One show, Scam Interceptors.
I find it difficult to get the message through to the right people. I’ve been working with the BBC and there’s an organisation called the American Association of Retired People. For me, it’s never good enough to say do this, don’t do this. I think you actually have to see the scams running. And this programme shows it in intricate detail. You can see and hear the language that they use, the techniques they use, what people typically say and how the scammers respond. When you see it first-hand, it’s far more likely to sink in. The scams themselves will change over time but if something triggers in the back of your head, at least gives you a bit of doubt, it can only be a good thing.
If in doubt…?
That’s it. If you’re in any way doubtful, a real organisation will have no problem assuring you that they are who they say they are. They have to be able to tell you more than your name, address and phone number because that’ll be on the screen of every scammer. If they can’t give you a customer ID or a recent transaction I would always treat it with a lot of scepticism. If they want to keep you on the phone for any reason or if there’s a sense of urgency, it’s almost bound to be a scam. The best thing to do is hang up.
Could you have been hacking this computer as we were speaking?
I’m not as good as people could make out. Honestly, the only way that I can really get access to scammers is if they connect to my computer. Without that I’m just no good at all.
Scam Interceptors is on BBC One and available on iPlayer
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