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The debate over working from home versus returning to the office is increasingly tortured as companies use the new school year to force employees back to their desks, even as workers plead for consideration over critical issues such as expensive child care.
It feels as if hardly a week goes by without a CEO urging staff to show up in the office only to be met with counter pleas over the impact that requirement will have on staff morale and the work-life balance. Women are especially vulnerable; the International Workplace Group reckons 53% of female office workers are also caregivers, my colleague Claire Suddath recently wrote.
Anyone working in there? Photographer: Amir Hamja/Bloomberg
How all of this affects economies is still being worked out. Downtown retailers and restaurants complain business has yet to recover as workers stay home. Some academics on the other side say remote work has clearly boosted productivity, one of the most important drivers of economic growth.
In an attempt to understand what all of this means, Goldman Sachs economists ran the numbers on office demand, consumer spending and productivity. Among their key findings: The share of US workers opting to WFH at least part of the week has stabilized at 20% to 25%, well below the peak of 47% during the depths of the pandemic—but also well above the pre-Covid average of 2.6%.
With a tight labor market, employers are forced to offer more flexibility. The Goldman economists figure that a one percentage point increase in the job-worker gap leads to a 0.3 percentage point increase in the share of remote job postings. Which suggests the opposite is also true—as the jobs market cools, so too will the option of WFH.
The empty desk beside you will remain a feature, according to the Goldman analysis. They see remote work adding 0.8 percentage points of upward pressure on office vacancy rates by 2024, an additional 2.3 percentage points in period from 2025 to 2029 and 1.8 percentage points more in 2030. That means city centers will continue to take a hit from the geographical shift in retail spending and employment to suburbia.
On perhaps the thorniest economic issue of all, the Goldman analysis nods to the “considerable uncertainty” in how to measure the productivity impact of working from home. Those arguments are well versed: Remote work means no more commuting and a more efficient working day (more time for Zoom calls). Office work allows colleagues to thrive together as a team.
Part of the problem is figuring out how to calculate productivity, and economists using different methodology end up with very mixed results, the Goldman economists note.
Regardless, it’s clear that another a shift is underway in the WFH debate as companies crack down on hollowed-out offices. One example: The new president of the Washington-based World Bank, Ajay Banga, has called for employees to work in the office four days a week, after three years of working from home.
Although some of the pandemic era remote work legacy will surely persist, what that means longer term for our office cultures, our daily output and our city center economies remains to be worked out. Preferably, for many employers, in person. —Enda Curran, Bloomberg Businessweek
The other night, I received a mysterious WhatsApp message. “Dr. Kevin?” it began, the question mark suggesting the sender felt bad for interrupting my evening. “My puppy is very slow and won’t eat dog food. Can you make an appointment for me?”
I was mystified. My name is not Kevin, I am not a veterinarian, and I was in no position to help this person and their puppy. I nearly typed out a response saying “Sorry, wrong number” when I realized this was probably a scam to get me to confirm my number.
I did not respond, but many others who received similar texts have. Some are even throwing it back at their spammers by spinning wild tales and sending hilarious messages to frustrate whoever is on the other side. They’re fighting back with snark, and in some cases posting screenshots of their conversations online.
Spam texts are on the rise, and so are the number of people who are striking back through “scambaiting,” which refers to “the act of wasting an offender’s time,” says Jack Whittaker, a PhD student in sociology at the University of Surrey who is studying the phenomenon. However, experts say responding defeats the point, as it opens a person up to even more spam texts.
Spam texts seeking to scam their recipients into giving up valuable information are not new. Some of the earliest digital spam was sent via email chain letters, the most notorious being for scams in which someone impersonating a Nigerian prince claimed to need the receiver’s help in depositing a large sum of money.
Once smartphones became common, scammers switched to texting. And in 2022, spam texts are much more personal. Often they mimic a misdirected text, perhaps addressing the receiver by the wrong name or using a generic first line (“How’s it going” or “I had fun tonight!” are common) to prompt a response.
If you’ve received any such messages lately, you’re not alone. “There’s been an incredible spike in spam texts,” says J. Michael Skiba, a professor at Colorado State University who specializes in cybercrime and international financial fraud. Globally, 90 billion of them were sent last year, he says; in the US, 47 billion spam texts were sent from January to October 2021, up 55% from that same period in 2020. According to RoboKiller, a spam blocking firm, scam texts led to $86 million in losses in the US alone in 2020. “People are just bombarded with these,” Skiba says.
Skiba says texting has several advantages over email from a scammer’s perspective—a note from a phone number raises less suspicion than one from a sketchy email address, and the casual nature of texting makes grammatical errors less noticeable. Many people also feel a very human urge to respond to a text. “It’s a psychological trick in that you know the text is not correct, but it appeals to your desire to help and say, ‘You’ve got the wrong number,’” Skiba says.
The person on the other side, however, is most likely working with an organized group of scammers in a call center and hoping you say exactly that. A single response is enough for a scammer to verify that a phone number is real. That response leads to a domino effect that could invite even more spam texts to your phone. Ultimately, scammers are looking to at least verify your number to potentially sell it to other groups; getting your personal information is a sweet bonus.
“I would 100% recommend not responding at all,” Skiba says.
But a scroll through Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, and TikTok shows that people aren’t taking that advice. Instead, many are engaging with spam texters and posting their conversations for the world to see.
Gabriel Bosslet, an associate professor of medicine in Indianapolis, decided to mess with a recent spam texter by firing off increasingly outlandish replies. He’s been doing this kind of thing since the early 2000s, when he started writing back to mysterious emails that were clearly Nigerian prince scams. Once it’s clear he’s corresponding with a scammer, Bosslet goes into troll mode, fabricating fanciful stories and characters—the more bizarre, the better. “None of it is true,” he says. “I just make it all up.”
Asked what his goal is in these conversations, Bosslet says it’s just to connect and interact with a stranger. He brings up the example of Wanda Dench, a grandmother who accidentally texted then-17-year-old Jamal Hinton an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner that has turned into a sweet annual tradition. “I realize that’s super odd, but I am open to some sort of interaction like that,” he says.
Jason Tanamor, an author from Portland, Oregon, has also started texting spammers back. And, like Bosslet, he isn’t trying to reform anyone. “I just try to get them to say ‘deez nuts’ because it makes me giggle,” Tanamor says. For him, chatting up a spammer can be fun; if he has time, he simply tries to keep the conversation going for as long as he can.
Neither Bosslet nor Tanamor was aware that answering spam texts probably verified their number, allowing their spammers to sell it to other spammers—resulting in even more spam texts. But neither cares. For them, messaging back with outlandish jokes is a form of entertainment. And both expressed empathy for the people on the other side of the phone.
But others have a more vengeful approach. Whittaker at the University of Surrey says some people have taken scambaiting to extremes, joining online forums where they create elaborate hoaxes to trap the perpetrators. That can be dangerous, he says. “Scambaiting can also [lead to] hacking into an offender’s computer as a form of public entertainment,” he says. That’s problematic, possibly exposing people’s private information, and it’s also illegal, despite the moral high ground scambaiters may claim.
Whittaker cites Jim Browning, the alias of a YouTuber and software engineer who has used scambaiting to delete stolen files from call centers involved in spam texts. Other scammers who have been exposed by people like Browning have retaliated by swatting scambaiters (making a false crime report to call out law enforcement) or luring them to dangerous locales.
“Scambaiting activities can become quite radical,” Whittaker says. “Also, scammers wise up to these tactics quickly, so wasting an offender’s time can actually teach them to become more wise to the efforts to waste their time.”
It’s a dilemma for people who mess with a scammer. It can be satisfying, if only as a form of rebellion against an annoying modern intrusion. But that rebellion can be costly, in terms of both the time it takes and the risk of setting off an avalanche of future spam texts that could, if scambaiters fall for them, put them at risk of financial or personal ruin.
The US Federal Trade Commission and consumer advocates have attempted to fight back with Do Not Call registries and efforts to stop spam texts at the network level, but spammers are constantly evolving their tactics to bypass these laws. That can make it feel as though there’s only one way to handle the frustrating situation: with a joke about “deez nuts.”