The calls start coming in on Thursday. Wrong numbers — or so it seems at first. All of them are from the United States. All of them looking for the same person: Tony Johnson. Upon answering the 3rd or 4th call, from Rhode Island, the voice on the other end is that of a frail and elderly woman and I ask her what specifically she is calling about. She reveals that she has received a letter in the mail from Citiwide Bank in Nevada with an enclosed cheque for $3853.00. In order to authorize the cheque, she was instructed to call the bank’s claim manager Tony Johnson at the phone number provided.
“And that phone number once again is…” I ask, already knowing what she is going to say. She repeats back my own phone number.
“I’m sorry, but not only were you given the wrong number but I think that letter is a scam.”
“I think you are right.” She replies and we hang up.
And so it has continued. Around 6AM Pacific Time, my phone will start buzzing every 20 minutes or so for the rest of the day. 19 missed calls this morning from across the States: Arizona, California, Connecticut, New Jersey, Alabama, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, New York. I check my voicemail every few hours. It is always the same story repeated one after the other. I feel strangely voyeuristic, as though given a brief audio snapshot into the lives of people with whom I would otherwise never have crossed paths. I can only guess that I am connecting with America’s most naive, perhaps her most desperate. Lots of older people; plenty of thick smalltown drawls; a man who asks for assistance “cuz I can’t read so good”; another man who just keeps yelling “HELLO?” into my message box. I picture these people sitting in their homes, in their trailers perhaps, ubiquitous cliches of the American lower class inevitably flashing through my head as they cradle their phones against their shoulders, holding their cheques up in front of them like beacons of hope, convincing themselves that it is a sign from God, that in these desperate and trying times this is the break that they have been looking for.
At the same time, I picture “Tony Johnson”, who to his credit must have put a fair amount of time and perhaps even a significant startup investment into this scam — creating convincingly branded bank letterhead, envelopes and cheques; copywriting for all of the documents; acquisition of some form of database; and then the actual trans-American mail out — I picture him sitting in his apartment, staring at his phone and wondering why the hell it hasn’t started ringing. I wonder when he will discover the typo. I wonder if he has a boss.
Meanwhile, I am randomly caught in the middle of these two worlds. I call the police, mainly to assure that my connection to this mail fraud case is not going to result in swat teams smashing through my living room window. The officer assures me that she thinks I am safe. The phone company informs me that they are not able to block calls from the US. In fact, my only options are to block all calls or to get a new phone number, neither of which are all that appealing. So I decide to ride it out for a few more days in the hopes that the initial surge will die down. Afterall, how many dupes can there be in America?