2 telemarketing veterans set out to expose the business’ scams in eye-opening HBO doc

Footage shows the rowdy offices where misfits would work the phones, soliciting donations for bogus charities.

SHARE 2 telemarketing veterans set out to expose the business’ scams in eye-opening HBO doc
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“Telemarketers” gets its best revelations from Patrick J. Pespas, a legend in the business who freely admits his mission is to “chisel” people out of their money.

HBO

Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission warned about scammers using artificial intelligence to replicate the voices of adult children who claim to be in distress and then con their parents into sending cash. A McAfee survey found that these fraudsters need just a few seconds of audio from a social media clip to clone a person’s voice.

Scary stuff. However, as we’re reminded in the kinetic and raw and eye-opening three-part HBO documentary “Telemarketers,” there was a time, not so long ago, when hucksters didn’t need anything more than old-fashioned landlines, a script, a sleeping conscience and a relentless drive as they worked from a “boiler room,” cold-calling folks and using time-honored, duplicitous and sometimes illegal tactics to separate you from $10, $25, $50 in dribs and drabs. The target would feel they’d done a good deed; the caller would hang up and let out a whoop. Another fish hooked!

The great thing about “Telemarketers” is that the two street-smart and unlikely heroes at the center of the story have receipt after receipt, in the form of the raw home video they started shooting some 20 years ago, when they were working in the telemarketing game and realized it was more con than fundraiser.

‘Telemarketers’

Untitled

A docuseries premiering at 9 p.m. Sunday on HBO and streaming on Max. Remaining episodes premiere Aug. 20 and 27.

In 2001, 14-year-old Sam Lipman-Stern joined the telemarketer Civic Development Group, which raised money for charitable organizations related to law enforcement or firefighting groups.

“I’d just dropped out of the ninth grade,” recalls Lipman-Stern. “I didn’t even want to f---ing work there. I just wanted to hang out and paint graffiti and film me and my scumbag friends being little pieces of s---. But my parents said I had to get a job, and Civic Development Group … was the only place that wanted to hire someone my age.”

Cut to grainy video footage of the rowdy and raucous CDG office, which looks like the Island of Misfit Humans. It’s a ragtag collection of cynical, middle-aged telemarketing veterans, ex-cons, self-described eff-ups, teenagers and drug dealers, and we see them smashing a computer, drinking beer, smoking pot and cigarettes, snorting drugs, giving each other tattoos, throwing a football around — and manning those phones, calling people at home and telling them they’re raising money for charities, but NOT telling them maybe 10% of their donation would actually go to the charity.

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Sam Lipman-Stern, one of the makers of “Telemarketers,” started working in the business at age 14.

HBO

The golden find in “Telemarketers” is Lipman-Stern’s friend, the “telemarketing legend” Patrick J. Pespas, a bespectacled, dryly funny, rough-edged but enormously charming character who comports himself like somebody out of a Safdie Brothers or Adam McKay film. (In fact, the Safdies are among the executive producers of the series.)

We see footage of Pespas back in the day, saying, “What we do is, we call up people on behalf of some bulls--- organization and chisel ’em out of money.” (In present day, Pespas comes across as a grittier, goofier, loose-cannon version of Michael Moore. He’s fantastic.)

There were two unbreakable rules at CDG: Never say you’re actually a cop, and don’t disclose the percentage of the donations that go to the organization in question unless you’re asked. If you WERE asked, you had to tell the truth. Eventually, though, the scams became even more brazen, with the telemarketers given a whole new list of bogus organizations that they would claim to be working directly for. “Some of them just sounded like bootleg versions of existing charities,” says a former CDG employee. “ ‘The Children’s Wish Foundation,’ not the Make-A-Wish Foundation.”

We also learn about CDG owners Scott Pasch and David Keezer, who became wealthy, building lavish homes, amassing art and wine collections, luxury cars, etc., etc. One former telemarketer tells of one of the owners having two enormous houses on either side of a lake and cracks, “And I’m begging old ladies for $10 donations! Get the f--- out of here.”

After the FTC shut down CDG and issued $19 million in fines in 2008, copycat companies popped up all over the country, taking advantage of loopholes to avoid regulation — and Lipman-Stern and Pespas decided to continue their investigation into the inner workings of such groups.

“Pat and I had vowed to expose the entire industry,” says Lipman-Stern, including a look into the charities that would hire telemarketing firms such as CDG, and “why [would] they have chosen a company as scummy as us in the first place.” (Suffice to say that with a reported 2 million nonprofits in the United States, some charities are more noble than others.)

Sadly, just when it appears our two investigators are making some real headway, Pespas vanishes, lost to his addictions and demons. In the final episode, he reunites with Lipman-Stern in 2020 after eight years, saying he’s born again and ready to continue the project. At times Pespas in particular seems more like Don Quixote than investigative journalist, but he and Lipman-Stern are to be applauded for their continuing efforts to warn us about telemarketing scams, which continue to take place too frequently in this age of Spam Risk calls and AI scams. Whether it’s a fast-talking hustler on a landline in 2003 or bots coming after us in 2023, somewhere there’s a human behind the curtain, all too willing, ready and able to take advantage of their marks.

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