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January 27, 2015

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Human-sounding telemarketers not what you think

It was my third unsolicited call of the day from “Jim” on my cellphone.

Time to talk.

“Jim,” I asked, “are you a robot?”

“No,” the voice answered.

Until then, I’ve always hung up on Jim as soon as I heard his voice. But this week I read about his colleague “Samantha West,” who was the subject of a Time magazine story about very real-sounding telemarketer callers who are not the actual people they seem to be.

Time unmasked Samantha West as a fraud by interrupting her sales pitch to ask her some simple questions, such as, “What is the vegetable in tomato soup?”

Her answers were either a flirty laugh, or a non-answer. And when challenged if she was actually a robot, she said:

“What? No, I am a real person. Maybe we have a bad connection. I’m sorry about that.”

Samantha West went silent this week after the Time story ran, exposing her as a non-human front for a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., company selling health insurance.

Meanwhile, Jim has doggedly been trying to sell me a home security system from a 646 area code, which is in New York City.

“So where are you calling from?” I asked Jim, interrupting his quest to put me in contact with another sales person.

“Right here in South Florida,” Jim answered.

“So why do you have a New York phone number?” I asked.

Jim didn’t have an answer for that.

“What’s your last name, Jim?” I asked.

“Stone,” he said. “As in a rock.”

Like Samantha West, Jim Stone had a cheery, energetic voice that sounded real rather than recorded or computer-generated.

“What’s the capital of Uruguay?” I asked Jim.

“That’s a great question for a home security expert,” he said, “and I can get one on the line.”

The number Jim called me from is one that has already gained quite a bit of notoriety on scam-alert websites.

Apparently, it has been used to sell not only home security systems, but also payday loans, with Jim being replaced by somebody identified as “Chris Harris.”

If you hang up, then call the number back, you hear a recorded voice informing you that you’re eligible for a $100 gift voucher if you press “1” on the phone — which, as others have attested, only leads to another deluge of unsolicited telemarketing calls.

So what’s the story behind Samantha West, Jim Stone and Chris Harris?

Alexis Madrigal, writing for The Atlantic magazine, offered a plausible theory.

Interactive voice response technology isn’t new. Many companies, such as airlines and banks, have used it to take customers through a menu of options in a two-way voice exchange. But these systems are limited by the poor quality of voice transmission over phone lines.

It’s why you end up shouting “Speak to a representative!” somewhere in the middle of your voice-recorded journey.

Samantha West and Jim Stone represent a more sophisticated next step in technology. They’re trying to pass themselves off as actual human beings talking to you in real time. But there’s still no technology good enough to do that yet over the phone, Madrigal writes.

So here’s how it could work: There is a real person behind Samantha West and Jim Stone. Somebody sitting in a Third World call center; Somebody who is fluent in English, but unable to speak it in the kind of disarming American-sounding voice that gives the cold call a better shot at succeeding.

“While Americans accept customer service and technical help from people with non-American accents, they do not take well to telemarketing calls from non-Americans,” Madrigal wrote.

So there’s a soundboard with lots of phrases pre-recorded in it, and as you talk to Jim Stone, somebody is listening in, punching up responses that try to fool you into thinking you’re having a real conversation with a young, vibrant fellow American.

It works as long as the conversation doesn’t stray too far off track. In my case, Jim Stone anticipated being questioned about his name, his location and whether or not he is a real person. But his toolbox doesn’t include knowledge of South American capitals or an appropriate response for not knowing.

Now, that I have a deeper understanding of Jim Stone, I’m looking forward to our next chat.

I plan to ask him if he and Siri have ever hooked up.

Frank Cerabino writes for The Palm Beach Post.

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