Hello, this is Lenny!

January 8, 2019

We’ve talked quite a bit about telephone fraud on our blog — those fake Microsoft tech support guys who try to scare you with malware into paying for their service, or the fake cops who say your kid is in trouble. Everybody hates them, regardless of whether they ever fell for the scam. At the 35C3 hacker congress, I happened to be at a talk that mentioned an amazing solution to all those phone scam problems. That solution has a name: Meet Lenny.

Meet Lenny, the voice chatbot that can be used against telemarketers and phone scammers

Lenny is a rather unsophisticated voice chatbot that simply reads its lines one by one when the caller pauses for a while. Lenny has several minutes of those lines recorded by a talented elderly voice actor. After it reads the last line, it just starts over. But it sounds so realistic that telemarketers continue talking to Lenny for dozens and dozens of minutes.

What keeps them hooked? Well, on the one hand, Lenny has some generic phone phrases like “Sorry, I can barely here you,” “Are you there?” and “Yes,” that are good for any topic, and on the other hand, it can ingeniously and smoothly redirect the conversation to other topics that have nothing to do with the original subject — family, a very smart daughter — and makes all those phone scammers and telemarketers listen to it chatter about them. Here’s a sample call to Lenny:

The creator of Lenny is unknown, but that person certainly has a sophisticated understanding of human nature; this weapon against telemarketers and scammers works surprisingly well. Loads of videos on YouTube depict dialogues with Lenny, all quite hilarious, and with the longest one reaching almost an hour. Just imagine: an actual living person talked to Lenny for more than 40 minutes before even starting to realize that she was trying to win over a recording! And then she talked to it a little longer. That probably saved a lot of people from being called by the same person that day.

During their talk at 35C3, Merve Sahin and Aurélien Francillon of Eurecom presented data they gathered from a few hundred of those YouTube videos featuring Lenny, dividing them into several categories depending on the type of caller. They found that the average call duration for all categories is slightly longer than 10 minutes. That’s enough for the recording to play 1.7 times.

Telemarketers usually lasted about 12 minutes with Lenny, and scammers about 7 minutes. If you listen to Lenny enough, though, you’ll find that even 7 minutes of talking to the old chatbot is enough to make you feel like a complete idiot for the rest of the day. Scammers deserve that.

The presenters also pointed out that, unlike other cold callers, scammers tend to swear quite frequently — in some 10% of all calls. And they are also quicker to get mad at poor Lenny, which, fortunately, doesn’t seem to care at all. Another interesting thing is that Lenny is explicitly recognized as a recording or a bot on only 5% of calls. A lot of cold callers hang up not realizing it’s not a real person, which is hilarious as well.

Unfortunately, despite Lenny being just several audio files and four lines of code, it’s rather hard to set up the bot for yourself. To do that you’ll need first to set up an Asterisk or Freeswitch VoIP and telephony server, which is free but requires some IT skills. And then you’ll need to install Lenny on it, copying the audio files and copying and pasting the code into the proper place. If you are eager to try, it’s again YouTube that can provide you with the necessary information (Chris from Crosstalk Solution has a nice video that explains how to install Lenny using FreePBX, which is a graphical interface for Asterisk).

And I couldn’t possibly say goodbye without another video of Lenny in action. Rock on, Lenny!