I started receiving strangely alluring phone calls from an unknown number.
I was greeted with a sequence of soft tones before a woman began pleasantly conversing in what I eventually recognized as Korean. Her voice was peaceful and melodious, and although I couldn’t understand what she was saying, it didn’t sound particularly menacing. The first call came in the middle of the day while I sat at my favorite coffee shop. I listened for a bit but eventually determined it to be a wrong number or scam call. It’s important to note that I had recently changed my phone number, so misdials were frequent. I’ve had people call and ask if I could send someone over (I don’t know what for), people asking to buy drugs; I responded to these with the usual “you got the wrong number” before hanging up. Some even rang me in the middle of the night, shouting threats and ending the call before I could respond. So, a lady pleasantly speaking Korean didn’t really bother me.
The second time I received the call was about a month later, at 4:04 AM. It was the same soft tones followed by the quietly talking woman. I listened for a bit before hanging up. It wasn’t until the third call, about a week later at the same time, that I decided to investigate what I was hearing. I was sitting at home and watching TV when the phone rang. I somewhat prepared for this and had downloaded an app to record phone calls. I accepted the call, put it on speaker and put the phone on the table, intent to let the woman speak for as long as she cared to. She ended up talking for exactly four minutes and four seconds before the line died.
I texted a Korean speaking friend of mine the next morning, asking her to come over for breakfast and help me solve this mystery. Her name was Nom-sook Hee and we had met while attending a workshop. We had grown pretty close over the last few years, though it never turned romantic, but that’s not to say she wasn’t attractive. She got to my house at around 9 AM and I made us food before playing the recording for her. She listened to the woman on the phone carry on with her usual spiel and jotted down hasty translations on a piece of paper. After the recording finished, she poured over her notes with a perplexed face.
“Anything weird?” I asked.
“It’s just a list,” she replied.
“A list of what?”
“Just a list of names,” she handed me the paper, “and some numbers.”
- Da-on Baek – 3500
- Eun-ji Hwa – 4250
- Hye-joo Jeon – 3320
- Jae-won Park – 5040
And so on…
There were 20 names in total, followed by whatever their assigned numbers were. We both didn’t know what to make of it. Nom-sook cited it as probably sports gambling information, as that was big in Korea. Whoever had this number before me seemed to enjoy a wide range of nefarious activities. We laughed and came up with crazy conspiracy theories as to what else it could be: A South Korean numbers station, nuclear missile sites and their arming codes, I even spun a tale about it being a hit list for North Korean defectors. After exhausting our imagination, we hugged and said goodbye.
That night at 4:04 AM the fourth call came, and it really freaked me out.
I recorded it as I had the original one and immediately called Nom-sook. She tiringly listened to me rant before agreeing to come over. She got to my house at 4:43 AM and we sat at the table, fresh coffee steaming from our cups while the phone recording played. Whereas the first call had a pleasant ditty of tones that introduced the woman, this call began with three agonizing buzzing noises that honestly hurt my ears, like angry static mixed with that screeching sound from the movie scanners. After that, an androgynous mechanical voice spoke in a very loud tone, repeating the same words in rapid succession, as if to add a weight of importance to the matter. Nom-sook translated the three words on the paper before handing it to me
“Purchase or Provide?” I asked.
She shrugged her shoulders and yawned, wiping the sleep from eyes before sipping her coffee. I began to dive into the implications of the cryptic message but was soon quieted by a woman who was too tired to join. She assured me that I was over-analyzing, and that these types of calls are more common than people think. I finally calmed down and offered Nom-sook my bed, pressing her to stay the night as to avoid having to drive again, but in truth I was just scared. She agreed and I got myself a pillow and blanket from my bedroom before saying goodnight, plopping on the couch and flicking on the TV.
I awoke at midday and knocked on my bedroom door to see if Nom-sook was still sleeping. I eventually opened it to find she was gone; I knew she worked mornings, and she had likely wanted to leave without waking me. I saw the sheet with the latest translation on it, ‘purchase’ having been crossed out and ‘provide’ being circled several times. She also wrote the numbers ‘404’ at the bottom to taunt me. I laughed at my ridiculous reaction earlier that morning and grabbed my phone to text Nom-sook. I had four texts from an unknown number, and they were in English:
- Purchase or Provide – going once
- Purchase or Provide – going twice
- Purchase or Provide – last chance
- Purchase or Provide – SOLD!
They all came in shortly after I fell asleep, one after another, in intervals of four minutes and four seconds each: 5:04 AM, 5:08 AM, 5:12 AM, and 5:16 AM. I called Nom-sooks phone and it went straight to voicemail. I knew she turned her phone off at work and just texted her to call me when she got a chance. I stared at the messages for a few moments before pushing them to the back of my mind and carrying on with my day. I eventually texted Nom-sook again to apologize for the way I’d been acting, promising to cook her an amazing dinner that night when she finished work.
I must’ve dozed off at some point because the next thing I remember was waking up at almost midnight. I picked up my phone and saw that Nom-sook had texted me a few hours earlier:
I figured I wasn’t going to live this down for a while, and that her taunting me by signing the message with those numbers was only the tip of the iceberg. It was too late to make dinner, so I called her to see if she wanted to grab a drink, but it was disconnected. I tried several more times to no avail and sent a few texts. I began to panic. I drove to the bar and grille she worked at and managed to catch the bartender as she was locking up; she said Nom-sook never even showed up for her shift. I called her apartment and all our friends, even her dad; no one had heard from her all day. The police told me they would start a report on her, but that she couldn’t be classified as missing until 24 hours or something like that, and that I should go home and see if she turns up. So, I did.
I sat at my computer and began digging around on various message boards for strange phone calls, convinced that the weird messages had something to do with Nam-sook. Only a handful of people experienced anything that resembled my situation, but only ever received the pleasant phone calls that I did in the beginning. Furthermore, they all stated it began happening after they recently changed their phone numbers as well, and only a few times each before completely stopping. The more I posted on boards and read the replies, the more I envisioned something terrible happening to my friend. I stared at my phone at 4:04 AM, anticipating another strange call or text message, but it never came.
I couldn’t sleep. I just stared at the computer screen until 6 AM, that’s when I received a message on one of the boards I was interacting with. It was from someone who went by the username more4four0four, and just said:
Last updated at 4:04 AM – Some new stock!
Attached were two screenshots, the first being of some sort of vague bidding website. In the center of the page was a list of Korean names and numbers, just like the ones Nom-sook translated for me, with a small ‘bid’ button after each entry. My heart dropped; “Nom-sook Hee” was at the very bottom of the list, and the button next to her number had been grayed out and said ‘sold’. The second screenshot sent my heart scurrying up my throat; it was a picture of me sleeping on my couch, two mugs on my coffee table aglow from my TV. The person who took the picture was also holding up the scratch paper Nom-sook used to translate ‘Purchase or Provide’. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I took all the information back to the police station and gave them my phone, so they could extract whatever they needed.
I hadn’t heard anything about the case for a few days until just this morning. I was visited by a pair of FBI agents that specialized in cyber-trafficking. They told me that this group, known simply as ‘404’, had been abducting young women for the past decade or so and specialized in girls of Korean descent. They agents described them as “crowd-funded”, very organized, and very hard to track. They refused to give me any more information and assured me everything is being done to find Nom-sook, but they didn’t look hopeful.