This post is ludicrous. But it’s true, which means that while it may sound farcical, it’s not. It contains some NSFW language, but you’ll understand why as you read on.
This is the tale of the past 24 hours or so in which the voicemail on my mobile phone was hacked, and a message claiming that I had quit The Next Web and joined Engadget was recorded. Following, a grip of calls from several numbers from around the country. At the end, well, we’ll get there.
So. Much. Tech.
Some of the biggest names in tech are coming to TNW Conference in Amsterdam this May.
I’m recreating much of this from memory, so this is as faithful a telling as I can muster. Before I realized that I was being toyed with, I wasn’t paying that much attention. Naturally, the conversations are to be taken as the best I can mange from memory, and nothing close to verbatim. I don’t record phone calls.
The Telephone Guy
Call 1. 8:27 pm. 54 seconds. Number: 331-465-xxxx.
The Telephone Guy: Hi, this is The Telephone Guy! We’re calling to add the [gibberish] to your line. [Something about my ‘telephonic device,’ and how through ‘telephony’ will make it better.]
Alex: [Something to the effect of I really don’t want whatever that is.]
The Telephone Guy: It’s simple, just don’t answer when I call you back. We have to call each person individually to set it up. [More use of ‘tele-‘ stemmed words here.]
Alex: Do you work for Verizon?
The Telephone Guy: I might, not sure who we are working on right now, we just have to call everyone from the center individually.
Alex: [Thinking: If I hang up, I get to stop talking to this loon, who keeps using the word ‘telephony’] So I hang up, you call back, and I don’t answer?
The Telephone Guy: Yes.
Call 2. 8:29 pm. Missed. Number: 331-465-xxxx.
Call to [Close friend]. 8:29. Number: [Redacted]
Alex: I’ve just had the strangest phone call. Oh, wait, he’s calling back. I’ll be right back.
Call 3. 8:32 pm. 2 minutes. Number: 331-465-xxxx.
The Telephone Guy: Ok, you’re all set up. We added the Rockwellkjfsdd[descends into gibberish] to your account.
Alex [I’d had probably 1.5 Martinis as this point, for context]: I do not want that on my account. [Angrily] What did you add to my account?
The Telephone Guy: [Almost in hurt tones] The Rockwellkjfsdd[descends into gibberish].
[At this point, I get him to repeat the name of the product slowly so I can write it down: Rockwell Automation Retro Encabulator]
The Telephone Guy: There’s a video of it online, it reduces static on your line.
Naturally, I think at this point that someone is either fucking with me, or fucking me. It can’t really be much else. A quick scan of the Internet quickly informs that the Encabulator is a joke, a tribute to scientific gibberish. I ended up on the Wikipedia page. Normally, quoting Wikipedia is frowned upon, but I was peeved and worried, so I landed there while searching. Thus, quoting it to you is a good way to frame what I knew at the time:
The Turboencabulator or turbo-encabulator (and its later incarnation, the retroencabulator or retro-encabulator) is a fictional machine whose alleged existence became an in-joke and subject of professional humor among engineers. The explanation of the supposed product makes extensive use of technobabble.
Well, ok then. The video that The Telephone Guy mentioned, by the way, is the spoof clip filled with the above-mentioned “technobabble.”
Verizon Support: 8:44. 7 Minutes.
I explained the odd calls to Trish, who had taken my call for Verizon. I said that I would love a review of my account to ensure that no erroneous charges had been added. I was advised to check my next bill carefully. I was provided with a special fraud line to call if anything went wrong.
With a note on my account, and a way to fight back, I went to bed. I woke up early to head to Microsoft’s campus in Mountain View, forgetting the incident. It was a very busy day, and not until I was walking back from Walgreens with a set of cleaning supplies did the train fully jump its path.
The same [Close Friend] called me as I walked up Pine Street here in San Francisco, almost home. 8:15 Did you change your voicemail? No, I replied. I didn’t even set it up. I despise voicemail. Why do you ask?
She had hit my voicemail a minute before – I had missed the call by accident- which should have been impossible, and had heard something very odd. It says you quit your job and now work for Engadget? This specific friend is a former partner of mine, meaning that she had been around my work long enough to get why that would be a problem.
I hurried inside, talking to her up the stairs, to test the situation. Happily, Nokia sent me a Lumia 928 today, with separate service, which I used to call my normal phone, and, I’ll be damned, the message played:
Hey you’ve reached Alex with The Next Web. I’ve left the company and moved to Engadget. If you’d like to contact me at my new position there, please email me at email@example.com, thank you very much.
The below clip is the message itself. I stuck my headset mike to the Lumia 928, while it was on speakerphone. Audio matters starting at the 20 second mark.
Though I respect Engadget, I remain a member of Team TNW.
At this point in the ordeal, I know that something is utterly hosed, and I’m mad. The cleaning supplies mentioned above were important, as a friend of mine is crashing on my floor tomorrow, and I had big plans to do a bit of tidying and scrubbing. My floors, after endless late nights involving martini-wielding friends, could use a bit of attention. Sorry, friend, this happened instead.
Let’s call Verizon.
Verizon Support. 8:29. 9 minutes.
I dutifully re-explained the previous night’s issue, the voicemail problem, and my general irked state. I was polite, of course, and honest. Monica, I believe, was great. However, she couldn’t find a way to nix my voicemail from her desk, and instead advised me to do so from my phone. Fine, I said, I’ll do just that. But could we add some extra protection to my account? Sure, Monica, said go to the following URL: [Hint: I forgot it].
I went into my phone – iPhone 5 – and tried to kill voicemail. You can’t, it turns out. Or, at least, I couldn’t figure out how. And I’m not stupid.
I deleted the old message, and recorded a new one. After all, if I can’t kill voicemail, I should at least say something. But for some reason, the phone would only let me record a message if I did so via speakerphone. This led to crap sound quality. Fine, I thought, I’ll just use the default.
But by now I’m a bit on edge, so I call from the Lumia 928 again, and dialed my number to verify the new recording. Yes, the default “you have reached the voicemail box of..” message played. But in Spanish. Well hell, that won’t do.
Verizon Support. 9:22. 10 minutes.
I get a guy this time. Forget his name. Explain the situation. In the end, he decides to call my phone and check what sort of message recording he receives. During this call, I receive a number of calls from numbers I do not recognize. And not because I recently moved to this phone. Numbers that I have never seen before.
After receiving calls – in quick succession – while speaking to Verizon from 661-748-xxx – Palmdale! – I hang up on the Verizon guy. He was going to call me back. We’re cool. Then the area code 541 numbers started. That’s the area code of the part of Oregon that I grew up in.
Note: Whomever decided to fuck with me did it with knowledge. Where I work. Where I might go. What my email address would be, based on my current work address. My publication. My rival. My phone number. The list goes on. And I’m not important at all. God forbid if I actually mattered.
I finally answer a call from 541-231-xxxx.
Return of The Telephone Guy
I answer the phone, and if I not mistaken, The Telephone Guy – who wasn’t the guy who left the message on my voicemail so far as I can tell – answers.
The Telephone Guy: Hi Alex, I’m calling because you opened a support ticket about the Rockwell Automation Retro Encabulator.
Alex: What the fuck is that who the fuck are you and what the fuck did you do to my account? [I all but shouted this in anger, so read it again with a bit more vitriol.]
The Telephone Guy: I don’t know why that tone of voice is reasonable, you called us to open a support ticket [Alex cuts him off]
Alex: You fucking called me! [Again, vitriol]
The Telephone Guy: No, you opened a ticket about the Rockwe— [Alex hangs up].
The number calls back a few more times.
A few minutes later, I get another call from a 541 number. But a different 541-231-xxxx number. I put on my polite hat and answer.
9:41. 4 minutes. 541-231-yyyy
Alex: Hi, this is Alex.
Hacker: I like The Next Web…..
He went on to expain that he was White Hat. Merely pointing out that I had lax security – for which I blame Verizon, as I had not set up my voicemail and due to what amount to carnival barker tricks, had lost control of it – he explained to me how to change the Spanish-language option. Something about a menu and 4-2-1-5 being the set of keys I needed to press in the menu.
I’m drinking a beer instead of doing that.
The tone of the call was odd, as if he wanted me to slap my knee, and say how clever he was. I wasn’t very happy, but was all but glad to have reached the person at the nub of the situation. He pointed out that he had done me a great favor by showing me the error of my ways. What if he had [done something involving spoofing] and stolen my bank funds!
I pointed out that I had, due to his taking up large amounts of my time, shipped work off to my colleagues that I had intended to handle myself. And, my cleaning supplies are in the same bag I bought them in. Unused.
The call ended, and I published a tweet culminating my live-tweeting of the escapade:
Phone hacker guy calls me: “I like The Next Web…” This is surreal. Claims that he helped me as he was “nice” and not “someone malicious.”
Well, thanks for being a fan. Would have preferred a friend.
Later in my personal tweeting of the situation – if you follow me on Twitter, my personal feed is sad. I won’t post a link to myself here to avoid being salesy – I received the first note from one of the accounts that appears to be in control of whatever person – group, it seems – that had more than a bit of fun at my expense:
And in the end, I got a few more. Here’s a short note from someone reiterating their motive:
I went to buy some food so that I could slam out this post, after my boss recommended that I do so. A final tweet came to me:
Not really, I lost an evening that I desperately needed to use to catch up on email and work. I did learn that if your voicemail isn’t set up, or if you really have voicemail at all, it isn’t secure. Period. Forget News Corp. You Corp. isn’t safe.
So that was my personal trial. I now have voicemail set up on my account, and it has the same password as my parents do on their smartphones. If I get hacked again I’ll know it’s them. Kidding. But really this was a pain in my ass.
PS: Thanks to everyone on Twitter that was supportive. Also to my two close friends who took phone calls from me in my anger to console me. You guys keep me sane. Also, I don’t work for Engadget.
Top Image Credit: AFP / Getty Images