Every time Jacob Hall calls, the conversation goes about the same. “Hello, this is Jacob, how are you today?” he begins.
“I’m fine, Jacob,” you might respond. “How are you?”
“I’m doing fine, thanks for asking. I’ll make this brief. I’m calling from the National Tax Help Center and we might be able to help you eliminate 70 to 90 percent of your liability, and in some cases even more….”
As a conversationalist, Hall sounds friendly enough at first, but then his awkward pauses and repetitive phrases make it obvious there’s something unnatural about him. When asked directly, Jacob will deny that he’s a robot, or that he is a soundboard being manipulated by a real person deploying pre-recorded messages, or even that he’s making a sales call. But even as much about him remains a mystery, one thing is clear: Jacob Hall does lie.
Jacob is one of a growing legion of cyborgs conducting telemarketing operations that walk a thin line between creepy and outright illegal. After receiving calls in December from a similar recorded voice, who called herself Samantha West, TIME has been looking into the sources of these weird, unsettling telemarketing calls. What we found in Jacob’s case was even weirder. The company that effectively “employs” him claimed no knowledge of his work, and could not trace how he got hired.
The technology that enables both Hall and West is so new that many people who receive their calls do not know they are speaking with a recorded voice. In online chat rooms, people have been complaining of late about strange phone calls from these almost-human telemarketers. Some people think West and Hall are actual humans. Some people confuse them for autonomous robots. In fact, they are soundboards run by real-live people who hold “conversations” through pre-recorded utterances. They allow employees with heavy accents, subpar voice tones or a shaky hold on the English language to speak in perfect, friendly voices to a prospective mark. They are basically machine-enhanced humans, or cyborgs.
If you entertain his queries, after a few minutes, Hall will hand you off to a live person speaking with his or her own voice at the California-based company Authority Tax Services, by all indications a perfectly legitimate, above-the-board tax accounting firm. We called the CEO, prominent tax attorney and Loyola Law School adjunct Wayne Johnson, to ask about the questionable telemarketing operation.
“What you’re describing doesn’t sound like something we do—or that we’re supposed to be doing,” Johnson said. He seemed truly bewildered by the telemarketing cyborg Jacob. “I’m as curious as you are at this point,” he said.
He referred TIME to Michael Hernandez in his operations department, but Hernandez was almost as stumped as Johnson. After TIME reporters called Jacob and got through to Authority Tax Services, Hernandez said the account showed up in his system simply as an “inbound business lead.” Hernandez said he did not know what company had employed Jacob to generate sales leads to sell to Authority Tax Services. He said he tried to trace the call through the marketing companies he does business with but came up empty handed.
“We don’t even know that this person is calling on our behalf, if they are. Which is bizarre,” Johnson said. “Which goes back to whoever the lead generators are must be out there subbing out to other companies, and the other companies are doing the robo-dialing.”
Unsolicited cyborg phone solicitations aren’t just a matter of annoyance. From two separate area codes in Colorado and California, Jacob had repeatedly called a TIME reporter’s phone number that is on the Federal Trade Commission’s Do Not Call list, a violation of which can incur a penalty of up to $16,000—per call. A completely separate company that has little or nothing to do with Authority Tax Services may be running a telemarketing operation, or subcontracting such an operation out, that violates the Do Not Call registry to generate business for Johnson’s firm without Johnson’s knowledge.
In many cases, firms that get leads from Do Not Call violators are sketchy operations themselves, but a search turned up no litigation or formal complaints against Authority Tax Services, which appears to be running a normal, legal business. The company, by all appearances, is just contracting with other firms that get sent client prospects by a telemarketing firm that employs cyborgs.