5 Half-Assed Scams That Fooled Big Tech
Back in the day, a scammer had to perform an elaborate musical number before a sucker handed over their cash. But most modern scamming is done online, and you'd expect the world's biggest tech companies to constantly be on their guard. Instead, Silicon Valley's giants sometimes fall for scams so half-assed that grandparents who just sent their social security number to IRS@yahoo.com would consider them naive.
Two Students Made $900,000 Sending Fake iPhones To Apple
Selling counterfeit iPhones is a difficult business. You have to make a working phone that looks like an iPhone, find unsuspecting customers, and not get arrested. At some point you'll be cowering in a Congolese coltan mining camp, taking heavy fire from Apple's copyright enforcement tanks, and realize it would be easier to just start an actual phone company. But what if the phone didn't need to work, and your only customer was Apple itself?
That's the scheme pioneered by two engineering students, who imported non-functional fake iPhones from China and used them to hoodwink Apple out of nearly $900,000. They would go to Apple under fake names, claim their brand new, warranty-protected iPhone wouldn't turn on, then hand over the cheap bricks. Without power, Apple employees couldn't immediately tell if the phones were under warranty or even real. So they'd just issue a new replacement phone, no proof of purchase needed.
They successfully did this 1,493 times, sending the new phones back to China to be resold. Apple rejected another 1,500ish claims, but not because the phones were fake. They claimed the phones had been tampered with and therefore weren't covered under warranty, then sent the fakes right back to the scammers, leaving them free to try again.
The students didn't even make an effort with their fake names, successfully getting a new iPhone issued to, ugh, Mr. Apache Helicopter. Although they at least recruited accomplices, targeted different stores, and used Apple's mail-in repair program, dashing our hopes that they just made hundreds of visits to the same store while wearing increasingly ludicrous disguises. The best part is that Apple never noticed they were fake, as the scheme was only foiled when US Customs seized one of their shipments. Both scammers were arrested in mid-2019 and presumably claimed to just be very addicted to Candy Crush.
Amazon Paid Out $370,000 For Boxes Of Dirt
As a retail behemoth, Amazon naturally has a generous return policy (they compensate for their losses by paying their drivers in beatings). This was great news for James Kwarteng, who made over $370,000 selling them boxes of dirt. That's right, he was such a great thief that he stole both Amazon's money and Loot Crate's business model.
Kwarteng realized that Amazon doesn't check inside returned packages if nothing about them appears unusual. At any given moment half the employees in an Amazon shipping center are launching human wave attacks on the only working bathroom, the other half have collapsed from kwashiorkor, a pile of cheap Malaysian sex toys has burst into flames, and the assistant manager is being strapped into an experimental Mars rocket while they scream at Jeff Bezos to reconsider. If you think anyone has time to "open boxes," then you just don't understand how to run a business.
Amazon would instead just weigh returned boxes. If the weight matched what was shipped, they'd sign off on the refund. So Kwarteng would order high-end electronics, weigh the package, and replace the device with its weight in dirt. Then he'd seal everything back up, send the dirt-filled box back to Amazon, collect his refund, and sell the electronics too for good measure. Amazon just stuck all the boxes back in their warehouse, while the 22-year-old raked in so much cash that he had to incorporate an actual company, presumably called Conquistador Inc, to handle the profits.
Amazon finally detected the scam after changing its return policy and discovering that its Spanish logistics center had slowly been transforming into a greenhouse. It's believed to be the second biggest Amazon return scam ever, and all it took was a scale and a shovel.
Someone Made $60,000 Uploading Stolen Songs To Apple Music And Spotify
Music streaming services don't check every song uploaded, even if one starts racking up thousands in royalty payments. It's hard to blame them -- with up to 40,000 tracks uploaded to Spotify every day it's impossible to manually check them all for plagiarism, and the lack of a centralized music database makes it hard to automate screening. So you can go the YouTube route, where some background bird noise that vaguely sounds like a Disney score is enough to get your video demonetized and possibly your home deresidentized by men in terrifying animal masks, or you can just let every song stay up until someone complains loud enough.
Since every Spotify stream qualifies for a share of the royalty pot, that laid back policy has been a huge boon for scammers. It's easy to grab some old or unreleased songs by a famous artist, upload them under a similar name like Beeyawnsay, then vanish with the cash. If the artist doesn't notice for a month or two, you're in for a big payout. If it's caught early, you only wasted an hour or so.
For example, in 2019 an album of obscure old Rihanna songs made it onto Apple Music under the name Fenty Fantasia. Despite sounding like a knockoff makeup line endorsed by one of Rihanna's estranged uncles, the album peaked at 67 on the viral charts before Rihanna's minions noticed and Apple deleted it. Scammers have repeatedly topped those same charts with the Playboi Carti and Young Nudy song "Pissy Pamper," which was pulled from release due to a dispute over copyright, possibly leading the labels to not give a shit if you steal it.
One of the scammers involved in that hustle proved to Pitchfork that he'd made $60,000 in a year by uploading unreleased songs by artists like Carti and Lil Uzi Vert to Apple Music and Spotify. An even more ambitious scammer managed to get unreleased songs uploaded to Carti's official Apple Music page, but they likely didn't stay up long enough to get a payout. Laziness wins the day again!
A Microsoft Programmer Bought A House With Millions In Embezzled Gift Cards
Microsoft is kind of like Coldplay: a phenomenon back in the day, and definitely still big now, but old enough that no one can get too excited about them. Until Bill Gates starts hunting orphans on horseback, we've just got too many new tech giants to fear. And apparently even Microsoft themselves can't be bothered to pay that much attention to what's going on over there, since they completely failed to detect the quarter-assed scam pulled by an employee named Volodymyr Kvashuk.
Kvashuk worked on Microsoft's online retail platform, where all the programmers on the team were given a test account linked to a dummy credit card that could simulate making a purchase. The platform would process it like a real purchase, but it would automatically not ship the actual product (instead of accidentally not shipping the actual product, as Microsoft normally would). Except Kvashuk realized that digital gift cards don't need to be shipped, and that Microsoft had just handed him a blank check.
Over the next year, Kvashuk used his test account to buy over $10 million in digital gift cards, then resold them online. Microsoft failed to notice anything even as Kvashuk bought himself a Tesla and a $1.6 million lakefront house. He stole co-worker passwords and recycled some of the money through bitcoin in an attempt to hide his tracks, but no amount of sales flagged anything on Microsoft's end. Although it's possible that Clippy tried blowing the whistle, only to be shoved back into whatever oubliette they keep him in now.
Kvashuk was undone only by the sheer volume of his embezzling. By early 2018 the use of gift cards to buy Xbox Live subscriptions had surged so much that a suspicious sales team started tracing where all the cards were coming from. Kvashuk was fired and arrested, having impressed no one with his claim that he didn't think gift cards were "real money." Although apparently Microsoft didn't miss it, so we think he should at least get to keep an Xbox Live subscription for himself.
Chinese Uber Drivers Were Dressing Up As Ghosts To Farm Fees For Cancelled Rides
Tech supervillain Uber has big problems. There's increasing political pressure over their working conditions, their business model has never come close to turning a profit, and their long-term corporate strategy is just a bookmarked article about that region in the Philippines where people go to fake their own deaths. But one of their most persistent challenges has been breaking into new markets. Users won't sign up unless there are enough drivers, but drivers won't sign up unless there are enough users. So when Uber enters a new country they usually offer some incentives to drivers, and they usually get scammed like crazy.
In Pakistan, Uber offered a small hourly payment to new drivers if they didn't get a ride in that timeframe. So a bunch of car dealerships and rental companies signed their whole fleets up for Uber, parked their cars in quiet parts of town, and got paid for doing nothing. They even brought in cheap day laborers from the countryside and paid them to drive for Uber, confident they would turn a nice profit from the hourly rate even if they didn't get a single ride. Lahore was swarming with Ubers, but users reported that the drivers would ignore them or call them up and berate them into cancelling the ride rather than go to all the trouble of actually driving them somewhere.
But the strangest scam was in China, where Uber offered drivers a small payment for each cancelled ride to combat rival ridesharing companies repeatedly booking and then canceling rides to force drivers out of business. This led to drivers Photoshopping their profile pictures to look like ghosts or zombies, so that riders would immediately cancel their trip upon seeing that their driver appeared to be someone who kept fresh human ears in their glove compartment. The spooky driver could collect the cancelation fee without having to actually drive anywhere.
It got so bad that Uber had to reassure people that their new facial recognition technology would screen out hordes of the undead. But we know what you're thinking: what about those brave souls who didn't care that their driver had the rage virus from 28 Days Later? Then scammers would just falsely claim the passengers had got in their car but ended the ride a minute or two later, in which case they'd still collect the cancellation fee. There's just no stopping a ghost driver! We'd tell you more about how Uber failed in China, but we have to go sell the previous sentence as a new Nicholas Cage movie.