The story of Lenny, the favorite Internet troll phone spammers

Original author: Daniel Oberhaus
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Lenny is a 10-year-old telephone chat bot created for trolling merchants on the phone, which has a whole cult online. It is surprisingly convincing, but is it really effective?

If it seems to you that the number of advertising calls has increased over the past few years, this does not seem to you. According to the New York Times , the number of automatic and fraudulent calls [in the USA] has increased by a third over the last year alone and amounted to 3.4 billion calls per month. The surge in telemarketing even forced the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to issue new rules that allow telecoms to block some automatic calls. At congressional meetings, US lawmakers discussed this problem several times and presented 12 different bills designed to curb the abuse of telemarketing.

Obviously, these measures have done little to contain growing spam. The government’s weak response to unsolicited calls almost a decade ago forced irritated IT industry workers to take matters into their own hands, and in the process they managed to create a favorite on the Internet troll of merchants by phone.

In 2009, an unknown IT specialist began using an interactive automatic messaging system to process telemarketing calls that came to the company where he worked. He called the chat-bot "Lenny" in honor of his elderly neighbor, who was collecting plastic bags in a huge " pile of human height " in his yard.

According to a post on reddit by a person claimingthat he voiced and created a chat bot, the author wanted to create "the worst nightmare of a telephone merchant." He decided that it should be “a lonely old man who is not averse to chatting, is proud of his family and is not able to concentrate on the objectives of the merchant’s call”.

The result was a chat bot consisting of 16 pre-recorded phrases played in a specific order. The first four phrases should encourage the merchant to start their advertising speech, and the last 12 phrases are played in a circle until the merchant hangs up. Lenny is an interactive voice script, a program that tracks pauses in a conversation longer than 1.5 seconds, and then says the following phrase in order.

To those who know, Lenny’s character seems terribly comical. He speaks impossible slowly, with a strong Australian accent, and lisps a little. When calling the merchant, the user can redirect the incoming call to Lenny, who answers it and happily agrees to listen to the telemarketer's offer. However, with the development of dialogue, Lenny's answers are increasingly removed from the topic of conversation. At some point, he begins to tell the merchant how proud he is of his family, and a little later he has to leave the phone for a short while to plug the ducks - they are heard somewhere in the background of the conversation.

Having existed for almost ten years, Lenny gathered something like a fan cult. Lenny works on a shared server, so anyone can switch his call to a chat bot. There is a special subreddit where the story of Lenny’s interaction with merchants is tracked, and hundreds of audio recordings of conversations with Lenny are uploaded to YouTube — and often they collect hundreds of thousands of views. I spoke with a man who currently supports Lenny’s server, as well as a researcher studying Lenny’s effectiveness as an anti-spam tool in order to better understand the Internet obsession with this virtual friendly old man.

Lenny's appearance

Lenny was not the first chat bot created to combat phone spam and support automatic trolling. Creator Lenny was inspired by the Esti-Krapper chat bot , created around the same time. There are many similar systems - for example, the Jolly Roger Telephone Company , but mostly these services operate on a paid subscription. Lenny is still unique in that he became the first chat bot whose records are freely browsing the Internet , and everyone can implement Lenny using telephone server hosting software, for example, the same Asterisk .

Lenny became publicly available in 2011 and has since gathered a community around himlovers. These followers exchange notes of irritated merchants and scammers, who sometimes hang on the line for up to an hour, trying to sell everything to a non-existent old man, from domain names to medical alarm systems . Sometimes sellers lose their temper when they find out that they are talking to a record, but a surprisingly large percentage of calls end up with the trader finding a polite excuse to say goodbye.

Today, Lenny's version is available to everyone and is supported by a former programmer named Mango.. Mango is not the creator of the original Lenny. He said that shortly after he heard about Lenny in 2013, his server stopped working. Protesting against the disappearance of such a valuable and ridiculous tool, Mango used Lenny’s previously recorded conversations and wrote his voice recognition algorithm to place Lenny on a publicly accessible server for use by other people. Since then, he alone supports this bot.

Mango told me that his dedication to Lenny is mainly due to the fact that, in his opinion, people are too often deceived. Lenny was the way to fight back.

“I live in a city where the number of older people exceeds the average,” Mango told me by mail. - It seems that every week I find out how another of my friends sent thousands of dollars in the form of iTunes gift certificates to someone abroad, or pays "technical support" for removing non-existent viruses, simply because someone told him on the phone that it needed to be done. "

Mango is sure that Lenny should be used only for trolling phone traders, and not to deceive innocent people. He said that when he first picked up the server from Lenny in 2013, he was flooded with prank calls. He says that he understands the desire to play friends with Lenny, but such calls simply occupied the system for nothing, as a result of which Lenny could not be used against real fraudulent calls.

Mango says that after setting up an algorithmic screening system, the number of lottery calls dropped to almost zero, while the number of people using Lenny for the intended purpose remained constant. He says that the public server receives about 300 calls per day.

“Most calls are short,” says Mango. - There may be several reasons for this, for example, some scammers require you to press a number on the phone in order to talk to a person, or receive calls where you cannot hear anything. Only about 1-2% of calls last more than 10 minutes. ”

Is Lenny effective?

Lenny’s popularity cannot be denied, but his effectiveness in the fight against telemarketing is more controversial. Although the creator of Lenny, apparently, just wanted to avoid messing with the telemarketers, if such systems were implemented on a large scale, they probably could seriously reduce the profitability of the merchants by phone.

This is one of the conclusions of a study presented last year at the Symposium on Useful Privacy and Security, which was conducted by French security analysts Merv Sahin, Marc Reli and Orelin Francillon. According to Sahin, a phone fraud specialist, she and her colleagues learned about Lenny when they were trying to develop their own phone hanipot to collect real data on phone fraud.

Instead, Sahin and his colleagues analyzed half of 500 records from Lenny, published by Mango on YouTube. As a result of the analysis, they found that the average call length of the merchant from those that were uploaded to the Internet is 9 minutes 43 seconds. And although a few calls lasted almost an hour, more than three-quarters of calls last no more than two minutes.

72% of sellers twice listened to the full cycle of Lenny's replicas records, until they hung up. Only 11 out of 200 traders realized they were talking to the record. Seven more decided that Lenny had dementia or Alzheimer's, and tried to get him to give the phone to the nurse. “Moreover,” the researchers wrote, “several spammers aggressively tried to interrupt Lenny, shouting phrases such as“ Sir, please stop ”or“ listen to me ”or even clap your hands.

“Technically, Lenny is a very simple chatbot,” Sahin told me by mail. “However, in terms of the quality of communication, Lenny is very well designed and thought out.”

Sahin pointed out that Lenny's notes are quite flexible in the sense that they can be used with a large number of vendor greetings. More importantly, Lenny also knows how to control the conversation and make the caller adapt to Lenny. Therefore, so many traders remained on the line for ten minutes or more, despite the fact that they talked with the record included in a circle. Obviously, Lenny is effectively deceiving merchants, but does he do any damage to telemarketing profitability?

According to studies by Sahin and colleagues, automatic telemarketing calls cost 4 cents per minute, and using live operators can cost up to a dollar per minute. Even when transferring business abroad to call centers in the Philippines and in India, companies still pay about 20 cents per minute for a call. And while living merchants have a better chance of making a deal, the FCC data suggests that two thirds of commercial calls are automated.

Based on the number of users voiced by Mango, Lenny is unlikely to be able to stop telemarketing alone. At best, he will remain a fun way to eliminate such calls from your life. Even if you expand it to scale, it will simply force the companies selling on the phone to rely more on automated calls in order to save money. As a result, our telephone lines will turn into a network of robots talking to other robots, which has already happened in most of the Internet .

And although Sahin did not consider Lenny to solve the problem of telemarketing, she said it was a new solution to a complex problem. Mango also does not consider chat bots as a fundamental way to solve the problem of unsolicited calls. This, he says, should be handled by telecommunications providers.

“I think the best solution to the problem would be an indication of the government, forcing operators to stop servicing problem users,” said Mango. “Until this happens, a multi-faceted approach will be needed to counter fraudsters: NoMoRobo-type services that selectively block calls that they see as uninvited, educational campaigns, and Lenny-type bots that spend time scammers.”

“Every minute of a scammer’s talk with Lenny means that at that time a scammer cannot deceive a real elderly person,” added Mango. “I support Lenny because I hope that the volunteers who redirect the fraudulent calls do their little bit to prevent several people from becoming victims of fraudsters.”

Note Perev .: in Russia on unsolicited SMS advertising can be complained toThe Federal Antimonopoly Service , and calls to Roskomnadzor .

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