Robocall revenge: Meet the techies turning the tables on scammers

Robocall revenge: Techies taking on scammers

Robocalls are not just annoying: More than 40% of them are believed to be scams. Last year, Microsoft discovered that more than 60% of people across 16 countries, including the U.S., were targeted in tech support scams.

One online activist has taken action into his own hands. He calls himself "Jim Browning," but won't disclose his real name for security reasons. Browning goes after scammers in India who make robocalls to people they hope will fall for their "computer repair" scheme. He plays the victim, listening as the scammers tell him they need access to his computer so they can give him a refund.

"They will typically use a phrase like 'we are a computer company going out of business. You paid us in the past and we're going to refund your money,'" Browning explained.

Browning lets them into his computer — but they don't realize that he's about to turn the tables, by accessing their computer and spying on their operations. Once in, he watches them, listens to them, and worms his way into their systems. His unorthodox strategy for going after scammers has proved popular on YouTube, where one of his videos has garnered over 2 million views.

"What is your goal in helping to expose these people?" asked "CBS This Morning" consumer investigative correspondent Anna Werner.

"One is really I want to get back at these guys," Browning said. "But the other one is just [to] raise awareness of scams in general — and particularly these type of scams."

But there's someone else — equally determined, but a lot more powerful — tracking the scammers, too: the Microsoft Cybercrime Center. At the center, more than 60 people work to disrupt cybercrimes like tech repair scams.

"This cybercrime is really happening at scale," said Courtney Gregoire, who heads up the team. "These networks behind these cybercriminals are trying to get millions of victims."

The company's scam reporting web page receives more than 12,000 complaints a month. As a result, Gregoire said, the team currently has about 500,000 data points to consider.

Microsoft went after call centers running scams in India, too. But they did so on a much larger scale, working with and providing intelligence to law enforcement overseas. That resulted in a bust last November in two cities in India that took down 16 call centers and resulted in the arrests of 68 people.

"Couldn't you just say to customers, 'Look, we sell a product. Fraud is not our problem?' Why is it worth it for Microsoft to even do it?" Werner asked.

"We think that this type of cyber fraud is really undermining, fundamentally, customer trust in technology, not just Microsoft," Gregoire responded. "The only way they're gonna use it is if they trust it."

Meanwhile, Browning found a way to make it a lot harder for this fraud operation to market their scam: he says he quietly replaced the robocall they were sending out with one of his own. It's the same computerized voice, but a different message: "This is just a scam so that they can access your computer and will try to get money from your bank account. If you ever get a message like this, it is always a scam."

Browning acknowledges that breaking into the scammers' computers is probably illegal — but he doesn't think they're going to want to go to the authorities to complain. Before he posted his YouTube video, he turned over his evidence to the local Indian cyber police force, but never heard back. "CBS This Morning" also reached out to them, but got no response.

If you receive a call like this, the best thing to do is hang up. And if you see a "pop-up" on your computer screen claiming you have a virus, be suspicious — immediately.