My days as an early internet scamster (and troll)

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In the British sitcom ‘Only Fools and Horses’ Uncle Albert would always bore the shit out of everyone by droning on about life ‘during the war’. I used to wonder what my generation’s equivalent would be, and I didn’t have to wait long to find out. When I try to explain to my students that life before the internet, smartphones and etc didn’t just involve sitting round in black and white waiting for those things to be invented I can almost hear them groan. As it happens I was involved in one of the first internet scams, and was also one of the first people to realise the potential of the web for what would become known as ‘trolling.

The first ‘proper’ ‘job’ I had (I’d already done about 15 things by the time I left school, from delivering the world’s shittest newspaper and selling dusters door-to-door to being shouted at in restaurant kitchens), was with a company based in Battersea which went by the sublimely Delboy-esque moniker of Business Trade Bureau. My bosses were a resting Islington actor who worked a little on our RP vowels and a dapper elderly gentleman who had a touch of the Frankie Frasers about him; my colleagues included two ribald white Kip Tiwnians who had left Sith Ifrica after the end of apartheid because of all the (ahem) ‘crim’.

Here’s how the scam worked. ‘Our’ ‘secretaries’ would phone round numbers from regional editions of the Yellow Pages: one week it would be plumbers, the next electricians, etc. Their ‘bosswanted to talk to the sole trader about something important, some work, in fact – their company had been ‘recommended. This was the bait, and as it was recession-deep 1993 small contractors usually leapt like adolescent perch at it. Most called back and were put through to a pseudonymous version of ‘me’ (there was much fun to be had doing ‘rallies’ round the office, transferring the call until they hung up. I think the record was sixteen.) We would, sounding as pompous as humanly possible (I’d never seen or heard Boris Johnson at this point, but…), lead them through a bullshit questionairre designed to see if they could satisfy the needs of our ‘subscribers’, who paid us a ‘handsome’ sum to access our ‘website’ (a ‘sort of private computer database’ which they accesed via a ‘modem’, ‘a bit like teletext, but considerably snazzier’ ‘it doesn’t matter what it is, because it doesn’t exist’ – that last explanation I often omitted) and get the details of ‘topnotch’ ‘handpicked’ contractors in their area.

What’s a modem? people would ask, usually sounding a bit tired. I’d never seen one, and I wouldn’t get the chance to go online for another year or so, at which point I would mostly use it to get Simpsons scripts and send rude messages to members of the Wu-Tang Clan (I never got a reply, thankfully). Some people were satisfied to be told that the system was similar to Minitel (I didn’t really know what that was either). I usually explained that a ‘webpage’ was like a fax machine, but with computer information instead of paper. This wasn’t a bad guess as it goes.

My spiel was often interrupted by weary queries as to the inevitable cost of this to them, the contrators. I would imperiously bat away such footling concerns, telling them it was our clients who paid for the service. The trick came at the end when, having obtained their go-ahead, I would tell them I’d be faxing the contract right away and if they could send it back post-haste (suddenly speaking impossibly fast) along with a cheque for £145 plus VAT we’d get them set up asap (pronounced asap). Cue drawing of breath, cursing, remonstrations about twenty wasted minutes followed quickly by my slightly hurt-sounding placatory protest that it was merely the cost of designing their non-existent ‘website’ (I didn’t say ‘non-existent’) which was done by a crack team of (with all the fogeyness I could muster) ‘whizzkids’.

Desperate business. At least it taught me the vitally important life skill of sounding self-important while lying through my gums. Given that we were paid mostly on commission there was a strong incentive to work hard but what we were doing was clearly so sociopathic in nature I often just covered the phone with The Guardian (the desk had no computer on it – how quaint!) and pretended there were no calls. Often, when I was called or forced into action, the acting bit was fun but there was a certain point at which the caller, after a couple of minutes of spiel, would refer bitterly to an uncannily similar-sounding conversation they’d had a few months before with a representative of another telltellingly-banally-named firm which had ended up scamming exactly £145 plus VAT off of them. That firm had, as it happened, operated from the exact same premises on the exact same premise. After I got wise to this I began to anticipate it, saying there were ‘cowboys’ in any ‘trade’ and it was essential to weed them out. I stuck out the job until I got a much better offer consisting of going to live in Dublin and signing on for a couple of glorious but now somewhat smoky years during which my skills at mini-pool and my indepth knowledge of Aerosmith videos developed considerably but my job prospects sort of stultified.

Within a few years I had been corralled back into the workforce and was spending all my working day online. The job consisted of helping people with their computer virus issues and mind-numbingly dull problems with (nods off) utility software. The company was located in the uniquely uninspiring setting of a subsuburban business park in comparison with which central Slough would have been like Djemaa El-Fna. I also spent a lot of time trying to avoid answering the phone. At least I got properly paid, although this was Dublin, in 1998, which generally restricted my disposable income to three pints of Harp and a red lemonade for the lady. The day was spent employing the usual skives: donating blood at lunchtime and spending the afternoon in a selfless snooze, urgent private tete-a-tetes which actually just consisted of paper plane competitions, trying to get the French speakers to direct calls my way so I could get in some invaluable language practice, and etc. Luckily I found an original way to perforate the tedium: the virtual version of Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam. I’d passed through the real place a few weeks before on my way to Singapore so was tickled to find that I could return in the form of a (rudimentary) avatar. The trick was to walk up to ‘people’, engage them in innocuous conversation and then let fly a series of uproarious Afrikaans obscenities copied and pasted from another website we’d tracked down (‘Jy was uit jou ma se gat gebore want haar poes was te besig, ‘Ek wens jou vingers verander in vishoeke, en jou balle begin te jeu and the classic ‘Jou ma se hond se poes). This would usually result in the deliriously rewarding sight of seeing their insuffiently-pixellated digital representative wordlessly turn around and totter off ‘in’ the ‘direction’ of another non-existent ‘part’ of the poorly-rendered ‘luchthaven’.

I’m not particularly proud of either of these episodes, but looking back now I do sort of miss those times when I had all that spare time at work to mess around and totally waste my time on the…er…internet. These days, I have to…er…what time is lunch?

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