Before caller ID, and before “Scam Likely,” answering the phone was an exercise in patience. A telltale click and tinny, faraway voice heralded the most dreaded of callers: a telemarketer.
But what happened behind the scenes at those call centers? For one company, at least, the reality was more sordid than you might think.
“Telemarketers,” a three-part docu-series premiering Sunday on HBO, is a shrewd investigation of Civic Development Group, referred to commonly as C.D.G., which was once one of the biggest telemarketing fund-raising companies in the United States — and the perpetrator of a monumental consumer fraud scheme.
Directed by Sam Lipman-Stern and Adam Bhala Lough, the series begins with shaky camcorder footage shot at one of C.D.G.’s call centers in New Jersey. Lipman-Stern, a 14-year-old high school dropout and aspiring documentarian, took a job at C.D.G. in 2001, and he soon began filming the call center’s bawdy atmosphere.
In his early footage, employees slug tallboys while on the phone and give each other tattoos in their cubicles. Patrick J. Pespas — a colleague and friend struggling with substance-use disorder at the time — becomes Lipman-Stern’s collaborator and narrator. In one scene, Pespas addresses the camera directly. “What we do,” he says, slurring slightly, “is we call up people … and we chisel them out of money.”
C.D.G. ostensibly raised money for police organizations, firefighter groups and cancer charities, among others. But unbeknown to donors and many callers, the company was keeping most of the money. According to the Federal Trade Commission, 85 to 90 percent of the money went straight into C.D.G.’s coffers, despite assurances from telemarketers that the charities received it all. C.D.G. was banned from telemarketing and soliciting charitable donations, and shut down in 2010. The series also presents evidence suggesting that many of those organizations were aware of the fraud.
Lipman-Stern, who eventually moved to Los Angeles, initially approached Bhala Lough, his cousin, with an idea for a documentary about C.D.G.’s fraudulent scheme, but Bhala Lough felt that there was “something special” in the footage of Lipman-Stern and his former colleagues.
“The characters attracted me to the project,” Bhala Lough said in a recent video interview from Los Angeles. Intrigued, he sent some of the early footage to Benny and Josh Safdie (“Uncut Gems,” “Good Time”), and the Safdies signed on to executive produce. (The executive producers at All Facts and Rough House Pictures, including Danny McBride, also joined.)
The archival footage was “jaw dropping,” Benny Safdie said in a video call on Tuesday. Originally, they considered making a found-footage “art film,” he said, “but we realized: OK, that’s a small story. It needs to be bigger.”
In the early days of production, Safdie made one major suggestion: Resume the investigation, which had left off years before. And so, in 2020, Lipman-Stern and Bhala Lough set off to New Jersey, reuniting Lipman-Stern with Pespas for the first time in about eight years. Their investigation eventually brought them all the way to Congress.
Earlier this month, Lipman-Stern and Pespas spoke in a video call about the genesis of the project and the current state of telemarketing in America. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Can you tell me what motivated you to start filming at C.D.G.?
SAM LIPMAN-STERN: You know, the company had this really interesting mix of characters — some teenagers like me, but also ex-convicts, drug dealers, and ——
PATRICK J. PESPAS: You know what it was? It was a job that you could get if, you know, you had trouble getting a job. So there were a lot of characters there. Everybody seemed to have issues.
LIPMAN-STERN: Including myself. But I think what motivated me to film first were the people. You couldn’t write these characters. And then the fact that we were all raising money for police organizations … that made it even more interesting.
Pat, what did you think when you saw Sam filming? What was your initial reaction?
PESPAS: A lot of the time, I didn’t even know what was getting filmed. But let me tell you how me and Sam met. One day, I was in the office, and he came in. For some reason I thought his name was Hamilton Stern. So I went outside for the cigarette break, and I saw Sam out there and was like, “Oh, hey, Hamilton, you got a smog?” And he’s like, “What do you mean, Hamilton? My name is Sam.”
Sorry, you asked him for what? A smog?
PESPAS: Yeah, a cigarette, a smog.
LIPMAN-STERN: I had never heard that term either, actually.
PESPAS: You know, smog, like the smog that’s in the air.
And Pat, why did you think filming at C.D.G. would yield interesting material?
PESPAS: I was very good at making sales. One day at lunch, a new guy came up and asked me, “Yo, how do you get so many yeses?” So I just explained to him that, you know, you get them to the final amount and you say to them, “Are you still over at 30 Smith Street?” And they respond, “Oh, yeah.” And you go: “OK, in two or three days, you’ll get your pledge kit with all the details and all the information. Is that good for you?” And a lot of people, once they say OK to their address, it’s easy to close them.
So the next day, me and Sam were standing there and the new guy called us over, and he goes, “Yo, this place is crazy.” I was like, “Yeah, I know.” And then I said something like, “Yeah, if America ever knew what really happens in this telemarketing room, they would be surprised.” And that’s when it all started. Before that, it was just messing around.
As you both know, there’s a difference between documenting and investigating. At what point did you start to think, “There’s something worth investigating here”?
LIPMAN-STERN: At first we didn’t realize that we were calling on behalf of scams. And then one day, the names of the charities started getting a little crazier, and I was researching online, and some of the charities were on these lists of “worst charities in the United States,” or like, charities where the vast majority — if not everything — wasn’t going where it was supposed to go.
PESPAS: We started realizing that the money wasn’t really being used properly, and we wanted to document that. But listen, it’s not just this particular company. The issue at hand is charity. No matter what the charity is, in America, it’s a business model. There was a guy who used to work at C.D.G. named Joe. And he used to say: “Do you want to become rich in America? Start a charity.”
LIPMAN-STERN: We’d raise money for major police organizations ——
PESPAS: Well, it wasn’t just that. It was also money for firemen, for first responders, for paralyzed veterans.
LIPMAN-STERN: Yeah, I was getting to that ——
PESPAS: You know what C.D.G. used to do? When you donated money, they’d just change the name of the organization and call the same number back again. So they would call you for firemen, then they would call you for veterans, then they would call you for the police. It was just never ending.
The Federal Trade Commission got C.D.G. shut down in 2010. What did that mean for your film?
LIPMAN-STERN: Pat and I were both obsessed with the story, but we didn’t know what the heck we were doing. But we were passionate, and we were relatively underemployed, so we had time on our hands. We just started calling all the charities. We wanted to know what we were involved in.
And eventually you went all the way to Washington.
PESPAS: You know, I met with Ann Ravel [a former commissioner of the Federal Election Commission], and I said to her, “All we need is some simple, common sense legislation.” This is where I differ from my partner over here. He wants to take the industry down.
LIPMAN-STERN: Well ——
PESPAS: Not so much me. I just want to see common sense regulation come in so we can straighten it out.
Listen, I know how Washington works. It moves very slow. So my attitude was, all you can do is make sure everybody knows and bring it to their attention. And now, at the end of the day, everyone knows.
What do you do when you get calls from telemarketers now?
LIPMAN-STERN: It’s fascinating to me. I mean, we recently got a call from a friend of ours who passed away, God rest his soul. And right now, as we’re talking, his ghost — his A.I., robocall voice — is making calls and asking for donations. After all these years of documenting this, it’s bigger, crazier, and less regulated than its ever been.
PESPAS: A lot of the calls I get now are for senior care. When they think they have a prospective sale, I’ll tell them my first name is Jack. And then I’ll tell them my last name is “Meehoff.” You get the picture. And they keep going along with it. I still get calls asking for Jack.
Content Source: www.nytimes.com