Why is that nice lady from China always calling me?

Kia Ora, from Te Manaaki Rauhanga

If you’re like me, you’ve lately been receiving the odd call from unknown numbers on your cell, home or work landline.  Usually, when you answer the call you’ll hear a recording of strange noises, perhaps someone speaking in a foreign language, or silence.  Occasionally you’ll also get a call that rings once and hangs up, and when you call back you’re greeted with the same kind of bizarre audio.  What’s going on?

In short, it’s a rather clever scam.  A very profitable one that can generate a significant bill for the University or you personally.  Here’s how it works, and what you need to know to protect yourself from these callers of dubious virtue.

The basic idea is to entice you to call the scammer back using your phone or device, which initiates the call from your end.  There are usually some sophisticated techniques employed that makes the number the call originates from appear to be a New Zealand cell number, or something else reasonably local.  However, regardless of what you dial, the call will be received by what you might recognize as a “0900” number – one of those nineties-era relics where you pay an extra fee to call for the weather or some other service.  Except instead of $0.99 a minute to hear the latest royal gossip you’re charged a slightly less reasonable $10-$50 a minute. This is a good deal more complicated than the good old days of Nigerian Kings asking for your bank account number!

So what can you do to stay safe?

  • If you receive a call that’s obviously a recording or in a language you don’t recognize hang up immediately.
  • If you get a missed call from a number you don’t recognize, don’t return the call.  If it’s an actual person calling they’ll call again or leave you a message.
  • Use your phone’s ability to block callers when you receive a robocall you suspect is from a scammer.  Android instructions.  iOS instructions.

There are a great many scams via email, phone, malware and social media these days – this is only the latest iteration in an increasingly confusing and sophisticated field of IT security where there’s little risk to the scammers and great potential gain (ie. your money).  We’ll do our best to keep you in the loop as these things pop up, but for now our best advice is to assume that any strange communications you receive are dodgier than a ten dollar iPhone.

There’s a great podcast you can listen to in your browser that does a deep dive on one instance of this scam.  It’s very non-technical and a really interesting listen: https://www.gimletmedia.com/reply-all/long-distance

Finally, there’s been a bit of media coverage on this issue.  Feel free to read it, but have some sympathy for some of the reporters who get a bit confused on exactly what’s going on.




Have a great weekend,