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You have Just Won a Free Trip to the Bahamas! Vaera 5778

I want to become a hacker. Not because I want to furrow into your bank account and steal your retirement funds, not because I want to steal your Social Security number, open myself a bunch of credit cards, and go binge shopping on your coin, but because I want to make the lives of Aaron Michael Jones and Justin Ramsey miserable until they stop making our lives miserable. Aaron and Justin are the source of constant frustration in your life, even though you’ve never heard of them before. And it’s not because they didn’t try to call you, they probably tried to call your hundreds of times.

Aaron and Justin are prominent players in the robocall world. Between the two of them, billions of phone calls go out each year, trying to get you to join debt consolidation programs, buy timeshares, get a home-security system, extended auto warranty, or of course speak to the infamous Rachel from Cardholder Services. They call your home during dinner, they call you at work, and most infuriatingly they call your cell phone, the last bastion of personal space to get breached. They even do something called “neighbor spoofing” where they call you from a phone number that has the same area code and first three digits as your number, increasing the likelihood that you will pick it up, thinking it must be someone from your hometown.

Phone scams and telemarketers have been around almost as long as the telephone itself. We know that the first words ever uttered into a phone took place on March 10, 1876, but there seems to be a dispute what those first words were. According to the record, Alexander Graham Bell said to his assistant, “Mr. Watson, come here – I want to see you.” But there is a growing community that believes that the first words were, “Mr. Watson, you have just won a free trip to the Caribbean and a twelve pack of Shamwows!”

By 1888, we have the first definitive phone scam. A wealthy commodities trader in Chicago had a private phone line installed leading directly from his house to his office. One weekday morning, a sharply dressed man who identified himself as Thomas Jefferson Odell, knocked on the trader’s door, claiming to be an associate of the homeowner, and asked the butler for use of the home phone. He then called the trader and claimed that his wife, chambermaid, and cook were lying bound and gagged on the floor and would be killed if he didn’t deliver $20,000 immediately to an accomplice down the block from the trader’s office. The shaken trader delivered the money, and then rushed home to find his wife and the rest of the household going about their daily routine with not a clue of what had just transpired.

Phone scams proliferated just as fast as phones did, to the point where in 1941, MGM Studios made a short film called “Sucker List,” about a group of scammers who call households in desperate financial positions and milk them of their last savings by offering them a buy in to some ridiculous horse racing scheme. Phone scams still abound today, here are some of the common ones: Someone calls from the “IRS” claiming that you are about to get arrested for not properly paying your taxes, and forces you to stay on the phone while you wire them money through Western Union, or in one version, you buy iTunes gift cards and read them the numbers! Someone calls you offering a free vacation, really cheap home security system, or a lower electricity bill, but require you to verify your personal information to make sure you are the real homeowner, or require your credit card to cover the taxes on the vacation. Another common one is used around election season, where the caller starts off as a pollster to determine your political affiliation, and then presses you for a donation to your favorite candidate. You probably recognize a bunch of these from your own experience.

Slightly better than scammers, but still high on my list of people I wish would move to ISIS controlled territory are the telemarketers. These people are trying to sell you a real product, but have no compunctions about calling you in middle of dinner, while you’re putting your kids to sleep, in middle of work, or all of the above. Telemarketing is much younger than telescamming, it only showed up in 1967. Public relations consultant Murray Brown hired 15,000 women to make calls from their homes on behalf of Ford Motor Company. The goal wasn’t to sell cars over the phone, but to “gauge interest,” or what we call lead generation. In the first campaign, he discovered that while telemarketers might have a very low success rate, if you have a high enough call volume, even .2% becomes significant. In that first Ford campaign, the 15,000 women called twenty million people, 187,000 of them were decent leads, and .2%, or 40,000 bought cars. Ford made $24 million on the campaign and telemarketing was born.

Telemarketing has changed dramatically in the fifty years since that first campaign. Predictive dialing software allows call centers to filter out numbers that are busy or not likely to pick up. Massive call centers with thousands of employees and sophisticated computer programs, often in India or other low-wage countries, took the place of the thousands of homebound moms sitting and dialing in their living rooms. People started getting really annoyed with “Johnny” from Mumbai calling them during dinner, and in 2003, Congress passed a law calling for the Do Not Call registry with overwhelming bipartisan support, the House bill passed 412-8. When George W. Bush signed the bill into law, he made a full Rose Garden ceremony, where he proclaimed, “When Americans are sitting down for dinner, or a parent is reading to his or her child, the last thing they need is a call from a stranger with a sales pitch.”

The Do Not Call Registry was the most popular government action since the repeal of Prohibition. In three months, over fifty million people signed up. The law was pretty clear; if a telemarketing company called someone on the list, intentionally or not, they could be fined up to $11,000 per call. For a few years, peace and sanity prevailed in American homes once again (I know, that’s a bit of a stretch, but we’re gonna roll with it!)

Then came Mr. and Mrs. Robo Call. Enabled by VoIP, Voice over Internet Protocol, which is the technology that allows for almost free calling to anywhere in the world, using the World Wide Web as the delivery system instead of phone lines, telemarketers were now able to blast out thousands of phone calls per minute, using nothing but a computer, an internet connection, and a list. Of course, there aren’t enough humans to talk on those phone calls, so Robo Callers use pre-recorded messages, and try to make the offer attractive enough to get people to press any button on their phone (if you’re interested, please press 1… hello are you there? If you’re interested in this incredible opportunity, please press 1… I’m sorry I didn’t hear you, can you repeat that?…). If you press 1, you are immediately transferred to a human being who will then try to close the deal, but they only have to work with the very small percentage of people who have already taken the bait.

Robo-callers can also use the internet to mask their origin. Using software, they can make the same call, from the same place, but it shows up on each phone’s caller ID as a different number, and none of them are the real number from where the call is coming, because it is coming from the World Wide Web. I know I’ve been suckered by this one a few times. I got calls coming from (917) 913-XXXX and I assumed it must be someone I know because their number is almost the same as mine, and I picked up the phone, only to find out that I won a free trip to the Bahamas!

Robo-calling was an absolute game changer. American phones starting blowing up with both illegal scammers robo-calling from Ukraine and Nigeria, or telemarketers from within the US. The Federal Trade Commission responded by making all robo-calling illegal in 2009, and the robo-callers responded by saying “who cares!?” While the 2003 Do Not Call Registry law at least gave Americans a slight reprieve, the 2009 law making robo-calling illegal made absolutely no difference. Robo calling only grew and grew, with complaints to the Federal Trade Commission rising from 1.6 million in 2010 to 2.3 million in 2011. The next year, the complaints grew by another 70%. Last year, there were a record 7.2 million complaints to the FTC, and you and I both know that it only represents a tiny fraction of the total robo-calls, because we both got hundreds of them last year, and didn’t make a single complaint to the FTC.

October 1, 2015 looked like it might be a big day in the world of home-peace. Aaron Michael Jones, a major player in the robo-calling world, responsible for over a billion calls a year, was forced to come to a hearing at the Washington headquarters of the Federal Trade Commission. Aaron Michael, who pays $25,000 a month for his Spanish Colonial Revival home in a gated community near Laguna Beach, CA, drives a fleet of Mercedes, has a full time personal chef, and a gambling account at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, showed up with his lawyers at 9:50am, ten minutes early, and was shown to a conference room on the fifth floor, where he met with attorneys for the FTC.

Strangely, he seemed very relaxed and confident. He answered all of the question with total candor, openly admitting to everything he did. At one point, seemingly bored with the rate of the questions, he broke in and said, “Obviously, the underlying issue is that the calls are illegal. We know that already!” A few hours later, he walked out and flew back to California and kept on robo-calling. In 2017, a federal judge handed down his sentence, a $2.7 million penalty. Aaron Michael simply paid it without even trying to contest the fine. He was making so much money from his robo-calling that it was just a nuisance, not a game changer.

At least Aaron Michael paid a fine. Most of the other players, routinely move their operations from place to place, never staying in once place long enough to get any attention. When all you need to call a million people in middle of dinner is a computer and an internet connection you can easily change your location in twenty minutes. They also change their business names, shutting down the companies and opening new ones as often as we fill our cars with gas. Their overall attitude to the world is, “Sue me!” More than seven million people last year were bothered enough by their calls that they lodged a complaint with the FTC, but the robo-callers couldn’t care less, because even if they’re caught, they will just get slapped with a fine that will be a small percentage of their earnings.

We see this same pattern playing out in multiple fields. We’ve covered in the past the case of Oxycontin, the drug that has a huge hand in the current opioid epidemic that has killed tens of thousands of Americans. The owners of Purdue Pharma, the company that makes Oxycontin, knew that it wasn’t really doing what it was supposed to do when they released it, but they spent hundreds of millions marketing it as a wonder drug, that would wean our nation off of pain-pill dependency, when in fact they did the opposite. Sure, they were fined $2 billion, but not a single person went to jail, and the company had already made over $32 billion in profits, just on that drug alone.

Before the Great Recession in 2008, Goldman Sachs sold massive bundles of mortgages to investors, marketing them as AAA rated, which they were because of the messed up rating system, but Goldman Sacks knew that they were toxic, and even bet against them, making money both when they sold them, and a few months later when they tanked. Did anyone from Goldman Sachs go to jail for advising their clients to do something they knew was extremely detrimental? No.

For years, HSBC Bank helped the murderous Sinaloa Cartel from Mexico, and Norte Del Valle Cartel from Columbia launder over $880 billion. When they were caught and prosecuted in 2012, they agreed to a $1.92 billion dollar fine. The Chief Executive Stuart Gulliver released a statement saying, “We accept responsibility for our past mistakes. We have said we are profoundly sorry for them, and we do so again. The HSBC of today is a fundamentally different organization from the one that made those mistakes.” Did anyone go to jail for decades of helping cartels that murdered thousands and caused the deaths of tens of thousands through the tons of heroin and cocaine they sent into our borders? No.

Whoever told you that in the US crime doesn’t pay wasn’t being 100% truthful, sometimes it pays in spades. In many areas of white collar crime, risk is minimal, the reward is big cash money.

In Ethics of our Fathers, we learn (2:1), “Consider the cost of a mitzvah against its rewards, and the rewards of a transgression against its cost.” Rational people will usually make cost-benefit analyses of their actions, and unfortunately for us, the US does not have a system in place to give many crooks even a slight pause before wreaking havoc on our lives. You can scam people, get them hooked on drugs that don’t do what they promise, or bother them all day on their cell phones, because even if you get caught, all that will happen is that you get slapped with a fine. If people felt a divine moral responsibility to do no harm to others, that would hopefully hold them back from these types of actions, but in an increasingly secular United States, that doesn’t play much of a role either.

The Jewish system is very different. Our lives are guided by the Thirteen Principles of Faith, which were elucidated by Maimonides, (1135-1204, Spain-Egypt), and adopted by the entire Jewish people. The eleventh principle states: I believe with a complete faith that the Creator Blessed is His Name rewards with good those who observe His commandments, and punishes those who violate His commandments. We believe that there is a World to Come that goes on for all of eternity, and in that World, all wrongs will be punished, and all good rewarded.

Sure, some types of crime may seem to pay in the US, but as a Jew, I know that if I knowingly hurt people to make some extra money, I’m going to have to pay for that for eternity. Not really a great deal. On the other hand, I know that every little good deed that I do, will be rewarded for eternity. It changes the entire cost-benefit analysis.

So, next time your phone rings, and there a robot on the other end of the line telling you that you are the lucky owner of a free home security system, stop for a moment, and pray that the guy behind that call, Aaron Michael Jones, Justin Ramsey, Arkady Vasiliev, or whoever else it is, finds G-d. It may change his whole cost-benefit analysis, and your dinner table will get much quieter.

 

Parsha Dvar Torah

In this weeks’ Torah portion we read about the Ten Plagues that were visited upon Egypt, due to their refusal to “Let My People Go.” Of the ten, the first seven are found in this week’s portion, Va’aira. After most of the plagues, Moshe went to Pharaoh and offered him a the opportunity to stop the pain but, ultimately, Pharaoh decided to stay the course, and waited until after the last of the plagues, the Death of the Firstborn before finally sending the Jews out.

We find a very interesting discussion between Moshe and Pharaoh after the second plague. The Egyptians were suffering from billions of frogs invading every corner of their land. There were frogs in the people’s bedrooms, ovens, stomachs, and every other place they could present a nuisance. After close to a week of this torture, Moshe comes to Pharaoh and offers respite. He tells Pharaoh that he can end the plague by simply praying to G-d which would prove that G-d was running the show. Here is the dialogue:

“Pharaoh called for Moshe and Aharon and said, ‘Pray to Ad-noy, and let Him remove the frogs from me and from my people, and I will send the people to sacrifice to Ad-noy.’ Moshe said to Pharaoh, ‘Glorify yourself at my expense. Exactly for when shall I pray for you, and for your servants and for your people, that the frogs be destroyed from you and from your houses, remaining only in the river.’ Pharaoh said, ‘By tomorrow.’ Moshe said, “As you say. You will then know that there is none like Ad-noy, our G-d.” (Exodus 8:4-6)

The simple question is that if Moshe came to Pharaoh and offered to end this horrible plague at any time Pharaoh would ask, why in the world would Pharaoh say that Moshe should pray for tomorrow, why wouldn’t he say simply that Moshe should end the plague right now?

Ibn Ezra (Spain, 1092-1167) explains that Pharaoh suspected that the frogs were not miraculous but rather some sort of natural phenomenon that Moshe was aware of through his use of science/astrology. He thought that Moshe knew the phenomenon was about to end and therefore presented himself to Pharaoh immediately, expecting Pharaoh to ask for it to subside instantly and then, when it would, Moshe would look like he had control over this natural phenomenon. S instead Pharaoh said, “Pray for it to end tomorrow,” thus upsetting Moshe’s ability to capitalize on the normal cessation, in the event that it was natural.

The fascinating thing about this is that it was already the second plague. The first one entailed all of Egypt’s water turning into blood, including groundwater, well water, and even water already in pitchers in Egyptian homes. This was soon followed by billions of swarming frogs, many of whom hopped into burning ovens, something not natural to frogs as we know them (you can imagine the survival of the fittest time span of a species that jumps into burning ovens!). Yet Pharaoh still held out hope that it just all might be natural. It seems ludicrous. What would the probability of the frogs being a natural occurrence be? But it was something Pharaoh desperately wanted to believe, so he went with it.

In truth this is a phenomenon we see happening all the time today. The probability of mitochondria evolving to the organelles they are without an “Evolver” is one in trillions. The probability of beneficial mutations bringing about the gradual change of one organism into an entirely different organism is one in much more than that. Yet, somehow, over 1.1 billion people on this here planet earth believe that there is no G-d, no force that shaped the world and put it into motion. They believe that our world is the result of billions of highly improbable events all coming together “luckily” in a way that they have not come together in any other place we are aware of in the universe. They either are really big fans of the underdog, or are suffering from a bit of the Pharaoh syndrome!

 

Parsha Summary

The Parsha starts with G-d reassuring Moshe that he has a special covenant with the Jewish people and that He will take them out of Egypt with great wonders and bring them to the land He promised their forefathers. Moshe conveys this message to the Jewish people, but they don’t believe him, due to their hard work, and distress.

Then the Torah gives a quick recap of the lineage of the first three tribes leading up to Moshe and Aaron, just to give us a proper perspective on who the Moshe and Aaron we will be talking about for the next few parshiot are. At the end of that we find Moshe demurring for the last time, this time based on his speech impediments, after which G-d tells him that Aaron will be his interpreter.

Moshe and Aaron come before Pharaoh and show him a miracle in which Aaron casts his staff to the floor, and it turns into a snake. Pharaoh starts laughing and calls in his wife, then his children, then the school children, and they all do the same with their staffs. However, when Aaron picks up his snake it returns to its staff form and then proceeds to swallow all the other staffs without changing size. After that, Moshe warns Pharaoh of the first of the Ten Plagues – blood.

After Pharaoh doesn’t heed the warning, Aaron raises his staff and hits the Nile which turns to blood. For the next week, the Egyptians could only find blood no matter where they looked, even in wells, reservoirs, and houses. The only way they could drink water was by buying it from a Jew. (No kids outside selling lemonade for 5 cents a cup, more like kids selling water for $10 a cup and having a line of customers!) Pharaoh called his magicians who could also produce blood. This hardened his heart, and he did not let the Jews go.

Then Moshe warned Pharaoh of the frogs and, sure enough, soon the entire Egrypt was covered in frogs. The frogs even went into burning ovens and the people’s stomachs. Pharaoh’s magicians could also produce frogs, but they couldn’t get rid of them, so Pharaoh tells Moshe he will let the people go if the frogs go as well. Moshe davens, the frogs all die, but Pharaoh doesn’t keep his part of the deal.

Next G-d tells Aaron to hit the ground with his staff, and the entire earth of Egypt turns into a teeming mass of lice. This the magicians cannot reproduce, as they have no control over anything smaller than a grain of barley, and they are forced to admit that it is the finger of G-d. But Pharaoh was of the hardened heart type, and he did not let the Jews go.

G-d tells Moshe to warn Pharaoh about the next plague, assorted wild animals, and when Pharaoh doesn’t change his mind, they descend on Egypt and wreak havoc. Pharaoh cries uncle and offers to let the Jews go but, once again, as soon as the plague is over he changes his mind. This pattern continues through the end of the Parsha, as the fifth plague, pestilence, the sixth plague, boils, and the seventh plague, hail, unfold. After watching the miraculous hail, which was a combination of fire and ice, Pharaoh admits that he and his people have been wrong and that G-d was right. But after the hail stops, guess what happens? You got it, he changes his mind and goes back to the old “I will not let them go” line. That’s all Folks!

 

Quote of the Week:  Without courage, all other virtues lose their meaning. – Winston Churchill

Random Fact of the Week: In a standard deck of cards, the king of hearts is the only king with no moustache.

Funny Line of the Week: The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn’t.

Have a Dandy Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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