For a guy who has at least six phone numbers, “Will” is a surprisingly difficult man to reach.
For months, Will has been badgering Philadelphians with prerecorded messages, offering to buy properties in the city and New Jersey. He asks homeowners to call back if they’re interested in selling, promising an offer in just seven minutes over the phone. He’s super casual about it, acknowledging how “random” his dropping them a line might seem.
“Will calls me three times a day,” said Terry Gibbs, a South Philly resident.
“It’s constant,” said Ellen Liebman, who lives in West Philly. “And it’s ridiculous. I know that my apartment is sought after. I get that, but come on, you really think I’m just gonna sell my apartment over the phone?”
Not unlike the “We Buy Houses” signs that litter neighborhoods seeking cheap property in hot neighborhoods, the robocalls are more than annoying. They prey on vulnerable homeowners, who are sometimes tricked into selling their properties far below market value, consumer advocates say
Not to mention that they’re illegal under federal laws. And the calls seem to have ramped up in the last few months.
So we decided to ask Will “what’s up,” ignoring experts’ advice that you shouldn’t speak to robocallers, many of whom are fraudsters.
We dialed the callback numbers he left in voice mails, spoke to evasive “investors” who gave inconsistent answers, and unearthed a larger robocall operation that touched major cities across the nation.
Our quest was a case study in how difficult it is to track down robocallers, who can cheaply and anonymously place calls using new technology. Americans received a record 5.2 billion robocalls in March, up from 3.2 billion the year before, according to estimates from YouMail, a robocall blocking software company. There were 88 million in Philadelphia last month.
“Here’s the thing about robocalls: It’s incredibly inexpensive and [there are] no barriers to entry,” said Ian Barlow, who coordinates the Federal Trade Commission’s Do Not Call program. “For a few thousand dollars they can call everyone in Philadelphia.”
Homes are just one of the many (and larger) products telemarketers are targeting. “Almost any kind of product or good or service, people have tried to sell with robocalls,” Barlow said. “From carpet cleaning to solar panels to student loan debt modification, to Medicare bracelets. Here there are offers to purchase your home.”
Will is so busy leaving messages all over town that he never answers the phone when you call him back.
His messages in Philadelphia have come from at least seven numbers, according to YouMail and complaints filed with the FTC. All of them were out of service when dialed this week and were likely phony, as callers can “spoof” their caller IDs to hide their identity. Consumers said messages sometimes went straight to their voice mailboxes without ringing the phone.
But Will consistently left the same callback number: 267-831-1593. We called the number more than 20 times and never got Will. But, we did speak with Cory, Logan, Steven, Sandra, John, two Justins, and countless Pats.
They claimed to be investors from the “Home Buyers Network" who quickly buy properties in cash. Several said they were based in Tampa. Aside from that, they didn’t agree on much else.
For example, Cory Gallagher insisted the group had a website even as he refused to provide it. “Just Google it,” he said. “Call back if you can’t find it.”
Later, a man who went by “John Chris” said: “We don’t have a website because we’re a small-time investment company.”
The next day, Sandra Diaz said they did, in fact, have a website called homebuyersnetwork.com. Except that website address is currently up for sale. “We were in the transition of changing our company name,” she explained.
Sometimes, calls were forwarded to a host of people who went by “Pat.” They said they worked for PATLive, an answering service firm that takes calls for businesses when they’re busy or closed. Pats were taking messages for “Steven’s Office” in Alexandria, Va.
Asked why there were several Pats, a Pat said: “We’re all Pat.”
“We all go by Pat to keep it easy,” said Pat. “But we do have some Pats in the office.”
We aren’t the only ones trying to find Will. The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office is looking for him, too.
“We are receiving complaints, and our Bureau of Consumer Protection is working to identify the caller,” said spokesman Joe Grace.
Although the office hasn’t heard of any instances of people selling their homes over the phone and getting scammed, there’s always the risk, hence the call for complaints, Grace said.
Michael Froehlich, a Community Legal Services lawyer, bandit sign vigilante, and robocall receiver himself, said once a month a person comes seeking legal help after underselling a home to someone who came knocking, or calling.
“We regularly see people who have been tricked or coerced into thinking that their house is not worth as much as it actually is,” Froehlich said. “A lot of our low-income clients are living in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods and they may not actually understand and have access to the information which will show their houses have greatly appreciated in value.”
Once the sale of a house goes to closing, the legal work of undoing a sale is extremely difficult, Froehlich said.
We listened to more than a dozen “Will,” messages and it’s not always the same voice leaving them. Will in Spokane has a deeper voice than Will in Philly. Washington Will’s callback number leads you to a different set of receptionists who belonged to a “Home Buyer Network.” They didn’t have a website, either.
PATLive, the answering service that sometimes picked up calls to 267-831-1593, did not answer emailed questions, including who is using Will’s callback number. The carrier for the number, Telnyx, said it could not disclose the identity of the number’s owner.
“This real estate scam is all over the country, with the message specifying the area and using a local number,” said YouMail CEO Alex Quilici, who estimates that there were 15 million to 20 million such calls in March, up from 10 million to 12 million the month before. “There are a bunch of variants, but the most common one seems to reference ‘My name is Will.’”
Nomorobo, another robocall-fighting firm, has collected voice messages from a Phil, Sam, Nicky, and many others who are all looking to buy your home. The firm’s founder, Aaron Foss, shared data from a computer program he uses to record robocalls. It picked up 313 messages about buying property between April 1 and April 16, up from 128 in March and 39 in February.
Nomorobo’s data uncovered three more Wills, bringing our total to five.
The reason for Will’s evasion could be that his recorded calls are violating the Federal Trade Commission’s laws.
Any telemarketing company that delivers a recorded message is violating FTC recording rules, unless the receiver of the call agreed to be called. Some non-sales robocalls are exempt, including political or charitable calls authorized by some states in certain cases, said Barlow of the FTC.
To safeguard yourself and your sanity, Barlow suggests that people get on the “Do Not Call” registry. That won’t stop telemarketers who skirt the law, but it will cut down on compliant telemarketers who avoid people on the list.
Barlow said you should also hang up as soon as a call comes in, don’t give out any personal information, and file a complaint with the FTC, which publishes all of its complaints online. Barlow also recommends call-blocking apps.
Meanwhile, the phone industry is working to implement technology that lets consumers know that incoming calls are actually from the owner of the number listed on a caller ID.
Since about 2004, the FTC has brought 140 cases dealing with robocall violations. Within those, 460 corporations and 377 individuals have been sued. The agency collected $124 million in payments in the last decade.
But it’s still only a reaction to a fraction of the complaints that come in.
Asked for tips on how we might track down Will, Barlow went into law enforcement mode. “I’m not going to go into specifics of our methods. That’s just not appropriate for public discussion,” he said.
To help our search, we recruited Marina Krikorian, a West Philadelphia resident who has received Will’s messages and was willing to provide the mysterious callers her address. In an unusual twist, the “Home Buyers Network” wasn’t interested in her property.
After asking about the condition and recent renovations to the home, “Logan” turned down Krikorian.
“We’re cash investors, so we usually buy them before they’re renovated and do the renovating,” Logan told her. “So I don’t think we’d be the best fit for you.”
He suggested that Krikorian contact a local Realtor, who did not return requests for comment.
“Maybe they’ll check me off a list,” said Krikorian, who receives a couple of calls from Will per week.
After a two-week search, we still hadn’t found Will(s) and felt as if the tables had turned. We had gathered and dialed long lists of numbers. We had tried to elicit personal information from uncomfortable strangers. We were the ones hounding the telemarketers.
“I think you just called and spoke to my colleague,” Logan said after we called twice in a row. Undeterred, he pressed on.