Digital ‘superhero’ hacks scammers and has the video to prove it — hear what makes Jim Browning tick

This looks like a normal office full of workers doing normal office-y things. But it’s a scammer phone bank, set up to rip off people all around the world.

If you didn’t see it for yourself, you wouldn’t believe it. But thanks to a European tech worker who calls himself “Jim Browning,” you can, in fact, watch criminals as they badget, cajole, and steal from confused victims. Sometimes, he even stops the crime just in the nick of time. Think of “Jim” as a real-life digital Superhero — humble IT worker by day, crime fighter by night. I spoke with this now-Internet famous “masked man” recently, and you can hear our conversation on my podcast this week (Click here for AARP’s The Perfect Scam).

Jim has been “scambaiting” criminals for years — taking their fake tech support calls and playing along to waste their time — but a couple of years ago, he took his tactic up a notch. When criminals try to sneak their way on his specially-designed computer, “Jim” hacks into the their computers. He records these interactions and posts them on his ragingly-popular YouTube channel. More recently, he managed to hack the CCTV security camera system at a criminal enterprise, giving viewers unprecedented access to a scam call center in action.

Jim’s YouTube channel is hypnotic, and you should watch his videos. They’re informative and, thanks to Jim’s dry UK wit, entertaining. While he remains anonymous, Jim has become a bit of an Internet sensation now that the BBC has aired a piece on him and The New York Times Magazine actually traveled to India to hunt down one of the criminals in Jim’s videos. That story is a great read.

But if you want to understand what makes Jim tick, and how he does what he does, you should listen to this week’s podcast by clicking the play button below or following this link. A partial transcript is below.

——————————PARTIAL TRANSCRIPT————————-

[00:11:11] Bob: Who is Jim? Well, we know he know he works in IT. Doug knows a little more about him. He’s verified a lot of details in Jim’s stories. But otherwise, he’s a mystery.

[00:11:24] Jim Browning: Yeah, it’s, I, I live a strange existence in the evenings. I, I, I listen in to scams and literally even if, if we weren’t speaking at the moment, I would probably be doing exactly that. I’ve got, let’s say a number of computers that I can see. They’re owned by scammers. At some point or another, um, the people who own those PCs would have tried to scam me. And I’ve used their connection in reverse, so I can literally go back to their computers and watch what they’re doing. And say, if we weren’t talking that there may be four or five computers that I could see and hear, and I can hear the scammers trying to scam people. And I was live streaming some of this to Doug, so just that he could see everything that was going on on my screen, and yeah, we were watching some of these live, and I had to politely say, look, I need to hang up the call here, ’cause I can just see somebody being scammed, I can see her phone number, ’cause the scammers type all this stuff out, or you can see it from their automatic dialers, and I, we’d go in and try to help anybody that I could see being scammed.

[00:12:35] Bob: You can think of Jim as a digital age superhero. Mild-mannered IT guy during the day, defender of people at night. How did he get started? Jim says there was no made for TV moment.

[00:12:48] Jim Browning: I wish I’d had a kind of clever story about how I got into it, but it was actually by accident more than anything. So, yes, I get a lot of these phone calls and obviously like anyone else, I try to follow them up and see where they lead.

[00:13:03] Bob: Well, I, I think a lot of people have fantasized about that, but I’m not sure a lot of people have followed up to the degree that, that you have, but just take a wild guess. So you’re, you’re getting these calls like everyone does, was it the, the 10th call or the thousandth call that really pissed you off enough to, to go this route?

[00:13:22] Jim Browning: Well, they all piss me off to some extent, I’ve got to say. Um, nobody likes getting those calls. I mean I; I am fortunate enough to be able to work at home some days, and I was finding that these phone calls were coming frequently enough that they were interrupting my day job, and there’s nothing worse than getting a, a scam phone call and you can hear immediately that it’s a scam phone call, um, telling the person stop calling me, and then to be phoned maybe 10 or 15 minutes later by someone, maybe not even the same call center, but running the same scam. It, it’s just, it’s incredibly annoying, and I guess with the engineer head on me, I was thinking that surely, I have worked in software and telecoms and networks for so long, maybe there’s something that I can do as an engineer to see if I could try to not even as much as get to the bottom of the scams…

[00:14:17] Bob: He started very slowly making raw videos that only a few people watched.

[00:14:22] Bob: So the first time you tried anything like this, was it premeditated? Or were you just, all, all right, that’s it. I’m, I’m engaging here. How did it go?

[00:14:32] Jim Browning: Yeah, well no, not, not premeditated at all. In fact, the first video I put onto YouTube was to say this just the consequence of I recorded the scam and I felt I would try to get the internet service provider of the guy who was running the scam to take a look at this and try and do something about it. And so I started very slowly, and I purely recorded basically my own voice and what was happening on my computer and left it at that.

[00:15:00] Bob: What Jim did then is called scam baiting. Keep a criminal on the phone, play along with the scam for a while, and you waste their time. That just might save someone else from becoming a victim. Scam baiting has actually been around for a long time, and small groups of volunteers chronicle their adventures on web pages and on YouTube. As they say, you shouldn’t really try this at home, because there are a lot of risks to scam baiting; some obvious, some less so. Anyway, Jim’s hack/back technique took scam baiting to another level. The chance to see criminals in the act, sitting in large call centers, operating just like any other business, well as Doug said, it’s hard to take your eyes off those videos.

[00:15:45] Jim Browning: Yeah, I mean it was quite slow progress. I think I’ve um, put videos on since 2014 or 2015, so six years. Um over that time. I’ve kind of got a very slow audience build up for some of the videos that I put up there, but I’d say in the last two or three years, where I’ve have taken a few extra steps. I’ve gone a little bit beyond recording the scam, and I’ve gone right back to the scammer. And I think since I did that, then the audience, uh has shot up and as I say I, even just last year I, I reached about a million subscribers on YouTube and this year it’s approaching 3 million, so I’ve been certainly doing well in the last year, year and a half.

[00:16:28] Bob: Despite building a group of avid fans, Jim was frustrated. No one seemed to care very much about this massive scam industry he was chronicling, and by no one, he means law enforcement. Until, that is, the BBC aired a piece about this call center security video hack.

[00:16:45] Jim Browning: It’s amazingly frustrating going to the police and then there to say this is happening on your doorstep, and can you please do something about it? And until the BBC documentary, until I brought external press into it, I have been completely ignored, but I released a video last May, or it might have been about a year ago, I guess, last March, and I involved the BBC in that, and as soon as I released that video, within 12 hours the call center had been raided and the main guy who was in charge of that call center was making millions, was then arrested. But I, up until that point, until the mainstream press were engaged, I’d heard absolutely nothing. I think I got one email in the previous five years and then all of a sudden there was a raid.

[00:17:38] Bob: Jim nearly got to watch the arrest happen in real time.

[00:17:41] Jim Browning: I was almost watching events unfold live because I have a, another guy who does a YouTube channel based in Delhi, and he had a tip off that the police were going to raid this call center, and I was almost getting it blow by blow and he was able to go into the, the press conference, and you know, interview some of the, the people they were arresting, the guys in the call center. So I mean I kind of recorded a lot of that at the time but never actually published it, but for me anyway, it was kind of not really a vindication of the work, but it was certainly something that I’d been building to, so if you can imagine, if you’ve been running a YouTube channel for four or five years and nothing’s happened, you can get pretty frustrated, so I would say that point was definitely a highlight, I’ve got to say.

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About Bob Sullivan 1538 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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