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My Worst Hume Session

Burghers of Calais, Rodin, Stanford Memorial Court

Author’s note: I began working on the following essay about three years ago. Originally, it was the opening gambit of a much longer, unpublished account titled “Viral Extortions in Silicon Valley,” which reflected more broadly on teaching and conducting credible research during the early months of the pandemic. A few details have been updated for clarity here. I have added a brief afterword. 

On one of the last days before the news broke about the first community transmission of the coronavirus in the United States, I found myself pacing Stanford’s main quad in a visible panic. I imagine I must have looked quite out of step with my surroundings. It was a warm Tuesday afternoon in late February. The magnolias near Memorial Church were blooming. For students, final projects loomed, and, for me, considerable grading. But the fountains were hopping, and spring break was at last within sight. All of us, of course, were about to experience a protracted departure from the physical campus. Soon, all of “non-essential” California and much of the world would find ourselves under the cascading lockdown orders that would reshape our lives for so long, not to mention the viral threat itself. But none of us knew any of this yet. If one of my students had happened to pass by, they would have witnessed their instructor talking on a cell phone in a cold sweat, walking in a frantic circle, dissonantly framed by the sandstone arches and red tile of that erudite plaza. I’m sure I looked as if I had just received horrible news: a cancer diagnosis, a death in the family. On that fine day, I suspect only the nearby “Burghers of Calais” would have appeared more anxiously cornered. 

When I made my way to the quad, I had just spent fifty harrowing minutes on the phone with an extortionist pretending to be a sheriff’s deputy, accusing me of a crime. A rare open session at the Hume Center had left me available to receive the call. Little did I know, when I set myself up in my tutoring room to wait for drop-ins, that this was about to become my very worst Hume session ever, in that space normally so full of positive collaboration and possibility. Supposedly I was in considerable trouble. My accuser claimed that I had failed to show up for a trial where I had been summoned to serve as an “expert witness.” A bench warrant had been issued for my arrest. When I explained that surely this was a case of mistaken identity, that I had never been served with a subpoena, I was informed that my word wasn’t good enough. I needed to turn myself in immediately. The extorter claimed he was helping me, that if I followed his instructions I could clear things up. Significantly—and this is a big part of what kept me on the line—he hadn’t mentioned money. When I made my way to the quad, it was after I had canceled my remaining afternoon appointment at Hume. I was stalling, disoriented, my ear suffering an assault by the extorter’s increasingly detailed warnings of what would happen to me and my reputation if I didn’t comply. If I hung up the phone, the police would find and arrest me. I could spend days in jail while the matter was sorted. I could be pursued by bounty hunters. 

You have probably heard of versions of this scam. The opening gambit wears down the victim with aggressive accusations of skipping out on a subpoena or summons. Internet data regarding the identity of the victim bolsters the detailed claims. Then, once the victim has begun to comply with orders to transport themselves to a police station to settle things, the fake officer provides some advice: if the victim buys a prepaid debit card for a bail deposit, they can streamline the ordeal once they arrive. For victims who go through with this purchase, a further opportunity emerges to pay over the phone. The wager is that once a person has gone along with the story to the point where they are preparing to turn themselves in—once they have canceled appointments at work and have prepared to make bail—they will be tempted by any exit that puts them back in control. 

I was aware of this scheme. My own father had been through a similar experience a few years ago. Oddly enough, I was thinking of him because it happened to be his birthday. But my father’s call lasted only five or ten minutes before he called the bluff and hung up. The scam that came to my phone lasted for nearly an hour. 

How I wish I had a transcript of the conversation. But the details remain vivid, and I believe I can articulate the outline, including several obvious gaps the confidence man spun. These inconsistencies were apparent even while the conversation was taking place. For instance, I know warrants and subpoenas are served in person, not over the phone. And a risk of bounty hunters, for a skipped trial appearance? These details seemed far-fetched. Yet the extorter also seemed to know just enough about me to make me doubt my doubts. Most of this data would have been readily available in various places on the internet. Woven together into a narrative, the details superficially checked out.

The call originated from a legitimate sheriff department’s phone number, which appeared with the department’s name on my phone’s caller ID. This is not terribly difficult to forge, I later confirmed, but at the time I was unsure whether it was possible. It mattered, too, that the particular sheriff’s department the extorter spoofed was not located in the Bay Area but in Santa Barbara County, where I had lived until 2019. When I saw the call on my phone, I immediately panicked that something bad must have happened to my ex-spouse, who still lived in Santa Barbara. This revealed itself not to be the case, thankfully, but this initial fear surely helped to catalyze my potential for manipulation. I believe the Santa Barbara detail was actually a mistake on the extortionist’s part, based on my old address or an old bio blurb, but he took advantage of it like a gift fallen into his lap. Once he picked up on the fact that I had recently moved from UCSB to Stanford, he played as if he had known that all along, and in my disorientation he was able to make this an especially convincing aspect of the story.

The extorter also gave the name of a real sheriff’s deputy at the Santa Barbara department. “Verify if you don’t believe me, son,” I was ordered, and did. He couldn’t take a photograph of himself or his badge. Photography, in the station, was strictly against the rules. Convenient—but again, vaguely plausible. Could he at least pass me to someone else in the office who could corroborate his identity? I was placed on hold until he found the “sergeant,” who provided another name I verified on the internet, and who confirmed that I was to be arrested. The sergeant seemed realistically confused about the details of my “case,” details which the deputy had known. He informed me that he was “very annoyed” to have to take the time to talk to me. I needed to “follow orders.” I noticed that he spoke in the same brash, white, Southern lawman’s accent that the deputy had displayed, if perhaps a slightly deeper voice. Two Southern expats at a California sheriff’s department? Unlikely, but not impossible. And perhaps, subconsciously, my consent to the fiction became more probable because it arrived narrated by a pair of white Southern lawmen, types plucked from the historical and ongoing nightmare of American police authoritarianism. 

Even though I was suspicious that the two voices on the phone were the same person, there was sufficient complexity to give me pause. The deputy also knew I was an academic, and insisted I had been called into court on the “basis of my expertise.” I told him I couldn’t imagine the criminal trial in which my background in rhetoric and American literature would qualify me to serve as any kind of relevant “expert witness.” Plagiarism detection? Perhaps my work studying unreliable narrators in novels? Details regarding the case couldn’t be given over the phone, I was told, because it involved a minor. Again, this was suspicious, although I suppose plausible. 

A key element of what kept me on the line was the interplay between calculated attacks and accident. My extorter was a gifted improviser. He was also lucky that I had been available to pick up the phone at all: a student had canceled an appointment at Hume. If I had missed the call, I would have likely called back the spoofed phone number and learned the hoax was a hoax. For all of the extorter’s apparently significant planning, he only had one shot with me. So I wondered: could he have somehow known that I had a rare open hour on campus? Was I being watched, either digitally or physically? Again, significantly, he hadn’t mentioned money. If this wasn’t the classic bail scam, could this be a more insidious data extraction attempt? Some new scam posing as the old scam? Or some other kind of experiment, or test? It was not lost on me that I was having this experience a short walk away from what was then still called Jordan Hall, named for Stanford’s eugenicist first president, where the infamous Prison Experiment took place about submission to authority. 

I realize this sounds paranoid. Yet this other possible plot had something to do with my research on narrative and propaganda, and what it felt like to study and teach a writing course that engages these topics in Silicon Valley in early 2020. The PWR 1 course I was teaching that quarter, which I continue to offer regularly, is titled “Trust, Rhetoric, and Writing.” Like all PWR 1 courses, most of the course is devoted to helping freshmen learn to develop and write credible, evidence-based arguments, but we also spend time learning to recognize and challenge untrustworthy sources. My initial rhetorical analysis assignment explicitly asks students to analyze an unreliable text, and many choose to write about propaganda and even psychological warfare materials. In this unit, we work with the resources of the Hoover Library and Archive, which houses the world's largest collection of these items. Students spend time with their digital collections, examining how these materials persuade and for that matter deceive. Given that so many of our students major in computer science and related fields, our conversations frequently touch on digital-age permutations of these phenomena, including forms of hacking and data manipulation. That very day we had discussed deepfakes. A student mentioned the growing profession of penetration testing, which employs hackers and other talented improvisers to break through digital as well as physical security apparatuses. We engage the work of Shoshana Zuboff, and her urgent warnings about data privacy and the rise of “surveillance capitalism.” Our conversations inevitably address machine learning and AI, and the increasingly sophisticated data capture and analysis techniques deployed by the tech sector. 

Uncanny world: on the eve of the virus, we had also been discussing Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, the company that had promised a device to revolutionize medical testing by making blood analysis for common conditions available on demand in pharmacies and grocery stores. The unicorn startup and its manipulations are perhaps the most infamous Silicon Valley crackup of recent years, and one of course close to home for our students since Holmes dropped out of Stanford to found her company. Famously, the devices designed by Theranos didn’t work as promised, although the company managed to deceive investors and backers for years. In class, this led us to an unsettling broader discussion of manipulative business and research practices in the realm of ultra-competitive biotech entrepreneurship, including the problem of “stealth research,” as well as how the mounting coronavirus crisis might be exploited by opportunistic disaster capitalists

And yes, in that retrospectively innocent moment, we had even dared ourselves to consider the propaganda sphere emerging around the virus (albeit very carefully even then. I remember at the outset of one such speculation, a clever student joked, “Let me put on my tin foil hat…”). We found it impossible not to acknowledge that the virus seemed to have arrived in the US as a major public crisis just as the contentious 2020 Presidential primaries were gaining steam. This was a coincidence. But jokingly, we speculated nevertheless about the possibility of gaslighting on a grand scale. The 1997 satire “Wag the Dog” was mentioned, where a war is fabricated in collaboration with a Hollywood producer to distract from a presidential scandal. More realistically, we considered how the already fraught virus discussion was playing out on social media and in the news, especially in response to the chaos of the Trump administration’s handling of the crisis. Thinking of Priscilla Wald’s  classic account of the “outbreak narrative” as a pervasive, recurrent cultural trope, and how the fear of contagion can precipitate demagoguery and paranoia, I asked students to consider what kinds of political arguments and narratives could the epidemic lend itself to? What arguments and narratives was it already facilitating? I recall I remarked, “The virus isn’t a hoax. Although, if it were, I suppose it would be a pretty good one.” 

It’s hard to imagine, now, that I ever could have dared to jest in this vein, given how politicized public discourse surrounding Covid was about to become (and remains). Yet I mention it here because I think it captures the mounting epistemological doubt that had been weighing on me, consciously and unconsciously, since moving to Silicon Valley on the eve of Covid. All of this accumulated doubt provided a perfect storm for my protracted extortion, including my participation in it. I believe my very doubts and challenges to the extorter’s authority are what created a feedback loop that escalated the encounter. My attempts to question the money-extortion scam precipitated a shifting narrative, which gave way, repeatedly, to an irrational fear that another kind of deception might be taking place: spearfishing for data, a fraternity prank. Or something more insidious. Could this be some kind of psychological attack, I wondered, of the sort my students and I had been talking about? 

These were paranoid fears. But even though the scam began as and ultimately was a money-extortion attempt, it seems doubtful the extorter would have normally persisted for as long as he did with a victim as dubious as me. After a while, he must have sensed that I wasn’t likely to pay him the money when he finally asked for it, but also that I was too neurotic to hang up the phone before getting to the bottom of what was really going on. Perhaps he wanted to punish me for my resistance, for my repeated whining “this feels like a scam,” which perennially enraged him. 

I think the call indeed morphed into something more sinister. Terrorism for its own sake. An experiment in submission to authority. After all, my extorter had nothing to lose except for time, and perhaps something to gain from what he could learn about human psychology: data. 

As I paced the quad, the extorter must have heard a breaking point in my voice. Or perhaps he was finally getting bored. He swooped: did I have access to enough money to post bond once I arrived at the police station? If not, I would be arrested immediately, and would have to contact a friend or relative to bail me out. I needed to have $3,000 on hand when I arrived at the station. Actually, I was told, I could purchase a pre-paid debit card and take care of the transaction over the phone.

The expected plot confirmed itself. I told the con-artist deputy that I was not getting the money, that we were going to the campus police station to settle things once and for all. The extorter made an angry final pronouncement that he was putting it in the record that I was “resisting arrest.” I wouldn’t make it to the station, he said. They had my location via GPS. Once the police arrived I would be thrown to the ground and taken into custody. In fact they were on the way, my extorter menaced, and he was finished negotiating. Then he hung up. 

He never broke character. 

I called my father, who confirmed that this could only have been a scam like the one he had experienced. I began to calm down. A few hours later, I was laughing about it with my partner. 

But in the days following the call, there were hiccups. I found myself overcome several times by an acute fear, which was entangled with the shame of having been so gullible. Later that week, I could barely get the nerve to walk back into the Hume Center, where the ordeal had begun. Apparently, an hour under the control of a professional interrogator, however false, was enough to do some damage. 

That Friday, on my afternoon train ride back to the city, I saw a news report about the virus spreading in the Bay Area. Shortly thereafter the shutdowns began. 

*     *     *

My experience with the extorter stayed with me for a long time. During the first months of the pandemic, I couldn’t but reflect on it as a kind of foreshock of what was to come, at least as a personal parable for how living through the pandemic sometimes felt: like an unprecedented, lasting, mutating extortion, albeit on a much vaster scale. To this day the phone call has a role in my teaching, especially in the “Trust” class where I tell the story every year. Its lesson, I think, is something like this: in the age of the internet, our consensus on “reality” is always more fragile than we think, even amid our vigilance. 



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