Robocalls are so infuriating — especially if they won’t stop calling no matter how many times you say you’re not interested — that it’s easy to forget there are real people around the world keeping the telemarketing industry alive by placing the calls, maintaining the lists of numbers they dial, and servicing the products and scams the calls offer.
In our story about the second coming of spam, we wanted to hear from the people who keep this spam economy running, so we tracked down a phone number reseller who was offering a database he described as containing nearly 100 million U.S. phone numbers, complete with associated email and postal addresses.
This seller identified himself as “Brian Masin” and he claimed to be based in the D.C. metro area and to have been working in the spam world since 2003, though phone number lists are “maybe 5 percent of my biz,” he said. He agreed to answer some of our questions via Skype chat. “I have been sued by the best of them in the past,” he said, “so ask away.”
This interview has been condensed and edited to remove obvious typos and add punctuation for clarity.
The Outline: How do you get the phone number lists in the first place?
Brian Masin: I have been in the industry for almost 15 years so I know a lot of the major data houses. I also have owned a number of sites that generate leads in general.
Which ones do you tend to deal with?
Lately I have been generating my own shit so none currently, but we have bought data from Equifax and Experian before.
Wait, you buy phone numbers from Experian and Equifax?
I am not sure about phones but I know we have bought emails or as they say, “rented.”
Do you ever get marketers calling your phone?
Dude I get 40 or 50 calls a day. The worst is RCI [timeshare company] if you ask me.
Are the people using the numbers you sell, robocallers?
I don’t have a clue where they are getting their data from. Maybe.
Do you ever worry people are using these numbers you sell to annoy people?
I mean I see it as a tool to help marketers find the right person. Robocalls are illegal now though.
Does it worry you that you make a living helping an industry that basically just annoys people? I feel like I would struggle with that, personally.
That’s the beautiful thing about being a human. You have the choice to let it bother you which I feel like all the people that are upset at being called need something to glom onto so they feel accepted. Same with the ass that started [the spam tracking nonprofit Spamhaus Project]. He failed at being a lawyer and the next profession he attempted so what does he do but find people that are looking for something wrong in the world to glom onto. So he starts Spamhaus when all you have to do is hit delete [to get rid of a spam message]. On top of all this how do you think the marketing industry stays ahead of the next guy? By getting the word out there any way possible which means through phone, email, pop-unders, SMS, Click2Call, and the numerous other avenues a marketer has.
Do you make a decent amount of money doing this?
Well I have an incurable disease so the past three years have been shitty but prior to that I made good money by other people's standards.
What's your diagnosis?
I have Parkinson's disease, diagnosed at age 28 and now I am 37. Sucks ass man. I wouldn't wish is on my worst enemy.
Yeah, that's rough. Sorry to hear it. Does it make it hard to find work?
Lately yes, which is why I have been switching my focus to postal campaigns.
I don't know if it is just a coincidence or not but the folks that run postals vs email or a lead gen[eration] campaign [where marketers initiate interest in a product with consumers] are more understanding of my issues.
How much were you making before?
From $75,000 starting in 2003 up to $160,000 ending in 2013. I have done numerous things in the industry. For a while I was a list manager, then I was a mailer, then I bought a bunch of sites. I have opened other companies as well. I have one site that collects phone [numbers] I believe and it has the [Telephone Consumer Protection Act] language directly on the signup page. Check it out at pageresult.com, is the site I believe.
Is that site where you get all the numbers you sell?
If the data isn't compliant I usually won't touch it. I have in the past and had to answer with a rather large fine. I have a compliant source I use. Because most call centers are mandatory on being compliant.
Do you ever worry that people will put phone numbers into the page that aren't their own? I almost wonder if someone like you might feel a temptation to put numbers into the site that were obtained through another route in order to launder them into compliance.
If you start thinking about stuff like that then you will never have a peaceful moment. It’s just like email or anything else in life where you hope you can trust people and make the very best out of every situation. I know folks that used to do that with email, but I haven't heard of anyone doing that with phones. If you don't want to have these groups calling you then just opt out of the Do Not Call list right?
They still call though, right?
And if Do Not Call can’t keep the compliance then I don't know how anyone expects individuals trying to police themselves would work out.
Yeah, that does seem a bit far-fetched.
I mean I have shitty credit, and I have creditors from 2005 debts that I am told are wiped off my record after seven years. I mean those are the folks that are the issue. My client calls to give you free shit. Come on, are they really causing a huge deal?
What sort of free shit do they offer?
We have had bunch of different types of clients but the ones that tend to give away free stuff are the Click2Call marketers. Anything from a leaf collector that you put on your downspout to vacations.
Do you think they actually give that stuff out, or is it just to get your attention?
“My client calls to give you free shit. Come on, are they really causing a huge deal?”
How I got into doing Click2Call initially was that I called a group that said they were giving away 500 dollar Walmart gift cards. But in reality what the gift card is that you have to buy 500 worth of Walmart shit and then you get 500 bucks in vouchers. So if you shop at Walmart all the time then it is a steal. But if you aren't at Walmart weekly then you would probably have to wait a while before you get those vouchers. And RCI gives away vacations to timeshares. Which I got a complimentary one from them when I was running their campaigns. I went in saying there is no fucking way I was buying one, but the deals they start throwing out at you are sick.
Well it is a bit frustrating when they keep calling, especially if you never gave your number out.
Why is it frustrating? Don't you want these folks to make a living? These are the jobs that they are now made to do.
You know, if you're eating dinner and someone calls saying they're from the IRS?
Would you rather support them through Medicaid and welfare? Are they really from the IRS? If they are calling from the IRS maybe you fucked up.
No, I think they're scammers. Or [when they’re] trying to sell a home security system.
Well hopefully most people can tell a real deal person from the IRS. Because if the IRS is coming after you then you will have a guy delivering you documents. If you buy [home security] online then you deserve to get duped.
Are there any things you could buy from a telemarketer without deserving to get duped?
What I meant by that was if you buy something without doing your homework.
How much do phone numbers usually cost?
For legit phones to a call center you can guess that they will cost around $.10-.15 cents per record. If you are just looking for run of the mill calling data then it will cost .008 to .012 per record.
That's per phone number?
Yup per phone number.
There was actually a group that I got into a legal battle with because they were selling their phones to a group in Florida and a group in Cali. Only thing was that they were selling it way cheaper to the Cali company and I figured that out so I was buying the entire month for $500 and then this fucking guy that I sold them to tried to create mayhem and get a better deal direct.
That sounds wild.
Yeah you should've seen the legal document I received the next day. It was more than 1000 pages. They were suing me for like 20-some million bucks.
Did you have to pay up?
Nah. I had to agree to never sell or use their data again… they went under like two years later.