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Noms de Scam, Coming to a Phone Near You

August 29, 2019 laurawattenberg No Comments

Noms de Scam, Coming to a Phone Near You

August 29, 2019 LauraWattenberg No Comments
Cell phone showing "SCAM"
Image: ALAN/Adobe

Rachel from Cardholder Services is a legend. Her robocalled promises to lower credit card interest rates have kept enforcement agencies busy for years. The Federal Trade Commission even has an official Rachel FAQ. But one question it doesn’t answer. Why is she named Rachel?

The name wasn’t just a random choice. The fake names used by shady telemarketers never are. I call them “noms de scam,” pseudonyms adopted specifically to lure in customers (or victims) by evoking an emotional reaction.

The famous Rachel helped establish a scam name template. Complaints about her calls date back to at least 2011, the year that the baby name Rachel dropped out of the top-100 popularity list after a 33-year run. The name peaked in the mid 1990s at the height of the sitcom Friends, which featured a Rachel who anchored the name’s image. She was adult but youthful and highly likeable—and white. In fact, the name skewed strongly white in the general population. That’s a snapshot of the kind of person the telemarketers thought the most Americans would respond positively to in their indiscriminate phone campaign. “Rachels” remain a common type today. In recent weeks I’ve received recorded calls from “Jessica from home security solutions” and “Kristy from credit card systems,” both of whom sounded like white women aged 25-35.

Another common template is noms de scam calculated to Americanize a foreign caller. I’ve received many live calls from faux “Microsoft security” seeking access to my computer. The callers are always young males with heavy accents and sound transmission lags suggesting a cheap and distant voice-over-IP connection. Yet they all identify themselves with nicknames typical of American men in their 50s: Jeff, Doug, Steve. The pattern suggests a slightly outdated playbook of “how to sound American.” In particular, scammers are following the one-syllable nickname rule, beloved of salesmen and politicians. Familiar nicknames sound friendly and trustworthy…as long as they’re plausible.

Not all of the choices are so ham-handed. Take two different robocalls, each with a recorded voice suggesting a gruff, weary, middle-aged white man. One claims to be from the Police Officers’ Support Association. The other says ” I’d like to ask you a question about our veterans. Do you think our veterans should be appreciated for the sacrifices they’ve made?” Both call themselves Joe.

Joe is a loaded choice. It’s not just a name but a throwback symbol of the hard-working, put-upon American everyman. Once upon a time he was a good Joe, a GI Joe, Joe Blow. The pairing of name, voice and subject matter tells us about the robocallers’ target. They are building a narrative to elicit empathy and nostalgia, especially from older people likely to be home with a landline during the daytime.

Each fake name is its own little story. What they have in common is that they’re all part of the scam. A name is a powerful shorthand that conveys a world of social information in a single word. The tele-sharks leverage that power to sway us in the few seconds of attention they win when we pick up our phones. When “Lou from the Public Safety PAC” or “Angela from the warranty department” calls, ask yourself why they chose that name and what effect they think it will have on you. The name may tell you more about the caller’s intentions than the whole pitch that follows.


Namerology founder and "Baby Name Wizard" author Laura Wattenberg is a globally recognized name expert, known for her scientific approach to understanding name trends and culture.

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