December 13, 2013
The phone call came from a charming woman with a bright, engaging voice to the cell phone of a TIME Washington Bureau Chief Michael Scherer. She wanted to offer a deal on health insurance, but something was fishy.
When Scherer asked point blank if she was a real person, or a computer-operated robot voice, she replied enthusiastically that she was real, with a charming laugh. But then she failed several other tests. When asked “What vegetable is found in tomato soup?” she said she did not understand the question. When asked multiple times what day of the week it was yesterday, she complained repeatedly of a bad connection.
Over the course of the next hour, several TIME reporters called her back, working to uncover the mystery of her bona fides. Her name, she said, was Samantha West, and she was definitely a robot, given the pitch perfect repetition of her answers. Her goal was to ask a series of questions about health coverage—”Are you on Medicare?” etc.—and then transfer the potential customer to a real person, who could close the sale. You can listen for yourself to some of the reporting here: