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Harassing Phone Scammer Pretends to Be DEA Agent

embroidered badge of the Drug Enforcement Agency

This guy most certainly doesn’t have one of these…

Today I was called at home by an aggressive phone scam criminal that goes by the name of “Mark Thomas” or something similar. Here’s how I got pulled into talking to this criminal, what clever engineering tricks he tried, and what to do if this happens to you.

Scammer’s First Contact

The first time the criminal called, our Verizon voice mail service (not the answering machine) took a message. When I played back the message, it seemed to be cut off. Caller has a deep male voice, is choppy but polite: “Yes. Hello. Good Afternoon. Christine. This is special agent Mark Thom–” (note the cut off message here. We’ll discuss that in a bit).

My Return Call

I identified the probable number in my phone’s history and dialed it. When the other end picked up, I heard talking and what sounded like to a telemarketing center in the background, so I quickly ended the call and figured I was done.

Scammer’s Second Contact

Mr. “Special Agent” calls my phone again. I see it is the same number so I pick up and say “Hello?” (I usually answer “This is Christine” when I see a business number I recognize to save the caller the formality of asking for me. This time, though, cautious, I just said Hello.) The criminal then asks, “Is Lisa home?” The conversation went as follows: {Key: Caller. Me. }

  • “Is Lisa home?”
  • “No, I think you have the wrong number.”
  • “Let me ask you then, why are you calling this number?” This was delivered in an increasingly intimidating voice.
  • “You called me first. I –”
  • (interrupting me) “Who is this?!”
  • “I don’t feel comfortable giving you that information. Is this Mark Thom-whomever? He called me.”
  • “Well who were we asking for when we called?! TELL ME WHO WERE WE ASKING FOR?”
  • “I don’t think you have the right number.”

From then on it was just this man yelling at me, threatening that he would come and “serve [me] with due process” and that I shouldn’t worry because he was “going to find [me]”. He kept trying to discern my name, which I successfully kept secret. This just made him angrier. After about not even 30 seconds of sheer yelling and intimidation, I said, “OK You’re scaring me now. I’m going to hang up.” The man still kept yelling as I pulled the phone away from my ear and clicked the OFF button. He was still on the line yelling when I immediately attempted to dial 911. The jerk may have heard me dial 911 over his ranting.

Cut-Off Message & Earworms

I was a bit shaken up, to be truthful. I’m ashamed to admit I was scared, even for less than half a minute. I would’ve written the message off if it was a full message. The fact that it was only a partial message played a big role here. Also, my lack of experience with this particular scam and the typically human wiring of my brain made that little unfinished piece of business too hard to resist.

This particular criminal didn’t seem wise, so I doubt he socially engineered a purposefully incomplete message. But a cut-off message with a novelty approach (“Special Agent?” Clever!) and just enough information available to generate a callback is an evil-genius bit of social engineering. Let me explain.

Ever get an earworm? It’s a song that just plays over and over in your head, making you tune into any horrendous music station just to stop the song snippet from repeating ad infinitum in your mind. Only then you find as soon as the radio is turned off, the song just simply begins its rounds again, like some bizarro world “It’s a Small World” deranged carnival ride from the darkest depths of hell.

This “cognitive itch” or dissonance that we experience with earworms and other incomplete tasks has a name. It’s called the Zeigarnik Effect and it is defined thusly:

The Zeigarnik Effect is the tendency to experience intrusive thoughts about an objective that was once pursued and left incomplete (Baumeister & Bushman, 2008, pg. 122). The automatic system signals the conscious mind, which may be focused on new goals, that a previous activity was left incomplete. It seems to be human nature to finish what we start and, if it is not finished, we experience dissonance.

 The cut-off message, along with an uncommon moniker (“Special Agent”), whether designed by the criminal or not, sent my brain into a curious and “must-complete-this-task” state. I had to investigate. The quickest way to do that was to call back the number. Things went downhill from there. Checking the number online would’ve revealed a lot of pages dedicated to “Special Agent Mark Thomas” and the exact same phone number, but events escalated quickly and by the time it was over, I just wanted to file a report.

The Lesson

Fortunately, no harm nor foul came to me because I was careful to not reveal any personal information. Even during the criminal’s tirade, I kept my wits about me. My experience with government agents (although very little thankfully) helped me to realize this was a scam. No agent would be allowed to treat even the worst offenders in such a manner. This criminal puts on a movie version of a rogue DEA agent to get people to fall in line, and as the police officer told me, many people do, especially the elderly. The officer was quite understanding and calming actually. He said it was his second harassing phone incident today and he sees it all the time.

I wanted to share this with you so you can realize that those of us who work online daily and have years of experience with scammers can still be tripped up. If it happens to you, don’t be ashamed. Take action. Put an immediate hold on all of your accounts. Explain to the credit agencies and your banks that you suspect that you have been swindled. File a police report. Register all new credit cards and MAC cards. Yes, it’s a pain, but your credit and security are worth the effort.

Keep safe out there.


P.S.: The way to get rid of that earworm? Look up the lyrics online and sing the song through from beginning to end a few times, making an effort to notice the specific lyrics that you couldn’t remember before. Scientists think that an earworm is simply the brain trying to complete the missing lyrics. Go learn them and the earworm should disappear and leave you with peaceful silence.


PHOTO CREDIT: C Holmes on Flickr.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Ruth Simmons 9 August 2013, 5:00 am

    I have read about this “Officer Mark Thomas” from the complaints posted at http://www.callercenter.com/516-478-9601.html where the caller identifies himself a police officer and demands money from the recipient, usually for a loan taken out months before. But the call is a bluff and anybody who receives is advised to hang up and report the call.

    • PurpleCar 9 August 2013, 2:38 pm

      Ruth, thanks for the link. Seems like Mark Thomas gets around. Unfortunately, I’m not sure reporting the call makes much difference, though. It doesn’t seem this particular crime really falls on the radar of police. I could be wrong.

  • Zoli Erdos 13 August 2013, 11:41 am

    Using Google Voice as your main number allows to put him (and others) on your spam list.

    • PurpleCar 14 August 2013, 11:48 am

      Zoli, I have a GV# but I’m still a bit shy about truly adopting it. I should consider using it more. Thanks. -PC

  • Mike_S_Htown 21 August 2013, 11:54 am

    I think it’s ridiculous that I have to pay monthly to have my phone number be unlisted, but I did it in the mid-80’s — and never get calls like this one…