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Doing Time in the Boiler Room

"So, I gotta know something," Larry, a 28-year-old computer technician from Philadelphia asks. "Are you blond?"

"No," I say. "Why do you ask?"

"Well, you just sound like a blond," Larry says. "It's not a bad thing," he rushes to add. "I'm blond."

"Sorry to disappoint," I say, wondering exactly where we are going with this conversation, wondering briefly if Larry thinks I might be a sex phone operator instead of a telemarketer.

Glancing at my ever-vigilant telemarketing bosses who keep a predatory eye on me and fellow workers in the telephone bank, I decide it's time to redirect the conversation to a more pressing topic: specifically, Larry and his as-yet-unrecognized desire to take a trip down to Florida.

"Lar," I say coyly, for we are friends now, and there is no need to refer to him as Larry, or Mr. Smith, as other, less experienced telemarketers might, "you say you're an edgy type of person, right?"

It's a gambit that I learned in telemarketing training at my job with Resort Vacation Marketing, a low-profile boiler-room operation in Boca Raton that peddles vacation packages. Go right for the ego. Make the would-be customer hungry to impress you with his bravado. Get his masculine wheels spinning.

"I like to live on the edge, yes," he responds.

"You know, I really don't believe that," I say flatly.

"Oh, I'm pretty extreme," Larry says. "I blew 300 bucks the other night on a trip to the Poconos," he brags.

"The Poconos, Lar?" I say with calculated disgust. "That sounds more like a place for old retired people who like to play bingo and cribbage than a place for people as edgy as you say you are. You know, at the moment, I've gotta say, you're not impressing me too much, Lar."

"I'm extreme, trust me."

"I'd like to," I say, "but you're really not giving me that much to go on. Let me ask you another question, Lar. We've been on the phone now, for what, 37 minutes?"

"I guess."

"Do you trust me, Lar?" I ask, getting down to the skeleton of the telemarketing model.

"Yeah, I guess."

"So, what's stopping you, Lar?" I say, rushing toward the moment of truth. "There are only two reasons why people do not buy this vacation package: One, they do not trust the seller, and we've just established that that is not the case. And two: They can't afford it. Are you telling me you can't afford a free vacation, Lar? Is that what you're telling me?"

There is silence on the other end of the phone.

"Let me ask you one more question. Lar, tell me, does your middle initial appear on your credit card?

And I have trapped him now. For Larry, like most people, has no idea whether his middle initial does in fact appear on his credit card. And once he takes it out to check, he is left vulnerable, like a girl caught in a storm without a raincoat. That's my hope, at least.

Welcome to Telemarketing 101, otherwise known as the "strategies for skinning the reluctant buyer." It is a brutal profession, with the highest turnover rate of any field. A Gallup poll, taken in November 2002, listed telemarketing as the profession with the least honest reputation. An unfair assumption, perhaps. But there is no question that telemarketers are among the most despised workers in America. A Time magazine millennium survey listed telemarketing as the fourth worst idea of the 20th Century. After the Federal Trade Commission approved new rules last June allowing people to place their names on a National Do Not Call Registry, a tidal wave of 50 million people signed up within months. By registering, consumers believed that at last the annoying din of phone calls from telemarketers would stop and that for the first time in modern history, they would be able to eat their pot roast and mashed potatoes in peace.

The telemarketing industry squawked like a chicken. An entire industry, employing millions, could be wiped out overnight, telemarketers complained.

But after the dust settled, experts pointed out that Do Not Call regulations, which were subsequently given the go-ahead by Congress, are so riddled with loopholes that they will have little effect on the business of telephone hard sell. "The Do Not Call list is not as no-call as you think," says Dr. Richard Feinberg, director of Purdue University's Center for Customer-Driven Quality. Among other things, Feinberg says, a prior "established business relationship" with a company trying to sell you something gives them an automatic exemption. That means, if you ever asked for a catalog or made an inquiry to a company's customer service, all restrictions are off.

Other telemarketers who don't have to worry about the list: state-based subsidiaries of national organizations, companies doing surveys with tacked-on selling promotions, charities and political organizations, not-for-profit agencies.

According to Feinberg, the new system is an invitation for companies to set up dummy partnerships and establish relationships with other businesses, subverting the federal restrictions and sometimes doubling their lists of exempted names.

The list, Feinberg concludes, is "easy to get around."

How easy? I took a job in October at Resort Vacation Marketing to see if Do Not Call was really the 600-pound gorilla that the telemarketing industry claims it is. Although Jordan Cohen, spokesperson for the Direct Marketing Association, a national telemarketing trade group, warned that the list would be "devastating" for the industry, I found, at least in a small operation in Boca Raton, that the list was a barely acknowledged presence.

In a cubicle next to the office door sits Doug, an older man with tousled brown hair and pressed chinos. This is the guy new employees might want to emulate. He sits back in his chair, crosses his legs, and lets the person on the other end of the line do most of the talking. The training manual for Resort Vacation Marketing informs future workers that "vacations are based on emotions," and Doug, a silent, nonjudging sort, is good at bringing forth these emotions. He listens well, takes notes on everything the caller says, and does not rush the sale. He is deliberate in all his actions -- everything from the comfortable way he settles back in his seat to the seductive way he holds the phone -- his ear pressed against the receiver, his lips caressing the mouthpiece, is calculated. It is only when the speaker is done conversing that Doug uncrosses his legs, leans into the receiver, and delivers his pitch.

"Cheryl," he says in his slow Southern drawl, "what will you say to little Jenny and Jimmy when they tell you they're the only ones in their class who didn't make it to Disney World this year?"

He sits back in his chair and gives Cheryl time to mull over her bad motherness.

"Cheryl," he continues, "how can you not afford this trip? I'm sure that you would rather save 50 to 70 percent of your hard-earned money than pay 100 percent on your vacation. Now let's go ahead and get you registered."

Doug reaches for his black binder, the one with the deal sheet, where he'll record Cheryl's name, address, phone number, and bank card number.

"Now, Cheryl," Doug asks, "what's the four-digit number on the back of your credit card?"

Doug listens and makes the appropriate supportive sounds as his pen loops and scrawls over the paper.

"Congratulations, Cheryl," he says when he is finished writing. "You're on your way to Florida."

"Cheryl," a young mother from Georgia, signed up at her local mall for the chance to win a free cruise. She probably did not know that by doing so, she was also registering her name and personal information with the BlueGreen Vacation Resort Co., a time-share marketer that is Resort Vacation's client. But because she voluntarily gave out her name, address, and telephone number to the company, managers say, she is no longer protected by the National Do Not Call list. If she had not wanted the vacation package, if she had screamed and cursed and told Doug that she wanted him and all telemarketers to die, she still would not have gotten off our list. All Doug would have done was write a simple "Not Interested" on her lead sheet, and the next day, or perhaps the next month, Cheryl would have gotten a phone call from a different telemarketer offering her a different vacation package. The only way to break this cycle would be for Cheryl to say the words "Take me off your list" or "Do not call me again."

Even then, Feinberg says, there's no guarantee Cheryl would stop receiving phone calls. The law as it stands now says that companies must check the National Do Not Call Registry every three months. If a person, like Cheryl, asked to be removed today, the company could still legally call her until March.

It is reasons like these that Resort Vacation Marketing could place an ad in a help-wanted section bragging that they were able to "get around the do not call list."

The nondescript storefront that houses the Resort Vacation Marketing office is near the well-traveled intersection of Yamato Road and Federal Highway, right next to a mom-and-pop electronics store called Vern's. There are no identifying signs outside the telemarketing office, just a huge parking lot visible through black-tinted windows.

Inside, the place is freezing and the music, from heavy metal to mainstream pop, streamed in via satellite, is pumped to its highest volume. "It keeps you on your toes," says Stu Findrileks, one of the managers. "It forces you to really concentrate on the caller's words."

In the back of the office, where a round table and an old-school telephone have been set up, Mitch "I Train with Pain" Cohen leads a training session. Slim, with a skinny mustache and salt-and-pepper hair, he has a heavy Texas accent.

Don't think of yourselves as telemarketers, he says first off, but rather as "certifiable selling agents." The difference between us and other telemarketers, Cohen says, is: "The people we're calling actually want to be called. They signed up with us."

Try to "bond with" our targets, he says as he hands out a stapled "resort vacation marketing" pamphlet with the words "welcome to our family" printed on the front page.

"Now, to make a sale, you need to engage the caller in conversation," he says. If you get to the bottom of the script and you do not know all about Bob or Sally, he adds, you have failed.

After two hours of training, Cohen, like a proud father, lets us take over the phones.

"Remember," he says, as we situate ourselves in the cubicles, "these people want to talk to you."

This is not the feeling I get when I start making my phone calls. I am cursed at by a 60-something man who thought he was registering for a cruise. When I tell him, after he has already given his credit card number, that it is not a cruise he has won but a "wonderful trip to Orlando, Florida," he hangs up. My manager looks at me in disappointment. "I thought I taught you better than that," he says. "Didn't you tell him there was water in Florida? And he could have gone cruising down I-95?"

Several unemployed people are excited that they have won a trip. Then they are crestfallen when they learn that they've actually only won the chance to pay a reduced price for three vacations, transportation not included. "But isn't that great too?" I say half-heartedly.

On my third day, I reach Mike, a 32- year-old school teacher who is taking night classes to become licensed as a school administrator. I ask him what grade he teaches.

"High school," he says.

"Ouch," I say.

Mike laughs.

"So you're a math teacher," I say. "Logically, then, you should be able to recognize a good deal. And purely by numbers, you know that a free vacation is the best deal you can get. So what's the problem?"

"The problem," he says, "is that as a math teacher, I know logically this can't be real."

"Mike," I say, "do you have a girlfriend?"

Mike goes silent for a second. "Yes," he says. "She's in Iraq. She's been there for the past nine months."

"Well," I say, "don't you think when she gets home, she'd like to go on a nice, free vacation to Florida?"

"I don't know when she's getting home."

"Well, that's the great thing about this trip," I say. "It's good for a year and a half. And you always have the option of extending the vacation for another three months for an additional $35."

I call back, but he does not answer. I leave a message on his machine. "Mike," I say, "I hope your girlfriend gets home soon. I'll be praying for her."

From the beginning, I have questions about the ethics of the company's sales tactics, but the whisper of guilt is becoming a drumbeat in crescendo.

DMA, the national telemarketing association, claims that it provides an employment opportunity for millions who might otherwise be either unemployable or working at menial jobs. According to DMA, 26 percent of telemarketers are single mothers, 5 percent are physically handicapped, and 67 percent of female sellers come from a minority group.

"A lot of the people who work in this field are not qualified for other jobs," says Jordan Cohen, spokesperson for the DMA. "Telemarketing is one of the few jobs that does not require a high level of education, hard physical labor, or long hours... What this policy does is impact people who are the most vulnerable in society. It hurts those who have the least."

They may be vulnerable to changes in the marketplace, says Tim Costello, coordinator of the North American Alliance for Fair Employment, but telemarketing employees are also among the most exploitable. "They're being treated like slaves," he says. "No one should ever have to work for nothing." After working as a telemarketer for six days, I have made a grand total of $130. Of that money, I will not see $70 for another three months, due to a stringent company policy that places a hold on your first few sales. Fifty of those dollars were promised to me as an incentive to get me back in the store, and $10 I earned by working on a Saturday.

One thing you lose fast is self-respect. Arnaut Veldhoven, 22 , a graduate of Lynn University in Boca Raton, refuses to tell anyone what he does. "If they ask," he says, "I tell them I do something in sales."

Regardless of the title, "at the end of the day, I feel like my lips will fall off from kissing ass so much," says one caller with five years' on-and-off experience in the business. As if to emphasize his point, he shoots spit across the parking lot.

On a Wednesday night, I walk into the office for the last time.

"I can't do this anymore," I tell the manager. "I'm not making any money."

Stu nods. He's sympathetic. "I understand," he says. "You need to make a living.

"Just give me a minute," he adds. "Let me see what I can do."

Stu picks up the phone, makes some calls, nods his head, smiles, and laughs.

"Thanks so much," he says.

When Stu hangs up the phone, he wheels his chair over to me. I expect him to tell me that he's talked to the big bosses and that they're willing to pay me a base salary.

Instead, he hands me a looseleaf sheet of paper with the phone number of a local restaurant.

"Give these people a call," he says. "I think they're hiring."


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