I can’t make this sh!t up:

A call center in New Jersey recruits only ex-cons and drug addicts.

They snort cocaine and heroin and drink whiskey…while at their desks making fundraising calls.

Lucky for us, this $18.8 million scam is secretly filmed (by a 14 year-old high school drop out!).

This will definitely make my list of “Best Scam Documentaries” when I get to it.

Trailer for the “Telemarketers” Documentary

Watch “Telemarketers”

Release Date: August 13, 2023 (on HBO Max)

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  • My Rating: 92/100
  • IMDB Rating: 7.3/10
  • Rotten Tomatoes Ratings: 94/100 (Users); 96/100 (Critics)

“Telemarketers” Documentary Review

From the early 1990s until 2010, Civic Development Group (CDG), based in West Caldwell, New Jersey, ran a billion-dollar telemarketing scam.

They misled donors by keeping 85-90% of the money raised. CDG claimed to support charities like police and firefighter organizations.

In reality, only 10-15% of funds reached these causes.

The Federal Trade Commission shut them down in 2010.

In 2001, 14-year-old high school dropout Sam Lipman-Stern joined CDG’s call center.

The Telemarketers’ Drugs and Drinking at Work

He secretly filmed the chaotic office environment. His footage from 2001-2002 shows rampant drug use, drinking, and unprofessional behavior.

Employees freely used drugs and drank alcohol at their desks. In one scene, Lipman-Stern films a coworker snorting cocaine off their desk.

Another scene shows a group of employees passing around a bottle of whiskey while making calls. This raw footage played a crucial role in exposing CDG’s fraud.

Patrick J. Pespas, a former convict, became Sam’s collaborator. I love this guy!

He was also the narrator in the series. Pespas struggled with substance abuse. He used heroin while working at CDG.

He would snort heroin in the office bathroom, nod off briefly, and then immediately jump on calls to solicit donations.

In one particularly shocking scene filmed around 2001, Pespas overdoses in the office bathroom.

A manager revives him and tells him to get back on the phones.

You gotta wonder if the owners could sleep at night.

CDG had an explicit policy of hiring ex-cons, drug dealers, and “great hustlers.” They believed these individuals could aggressively extract money from donors.

Many telemarketers were hired from halfway houses. They used manipulative tactics to solicit donations.

Pespas himself had been arrested in 1998. He was growing 48 pounds of marijuana plants.

He was a heroin addict who would openly use drugs at his desk while making fundraising calls for CDG in the early 2000s.

The Telemarketers’ Scam

One of the reasons the scam worked was that the telemarketers used core principles of persuasion.

For example, they would use social proof (“I’m calling on behalf of the Chicago Police Memorial Foundation”).

The telemarketers were told to think about how the policemen sound in the cartoons and try to imitate them” to sound more credible on calls.

Another persuasion technique: was that

CDG sent decals to donors that the telemarketers falsely suggested would help donors avoid getting pulled over by police.

Organizations like the Chicago Police Memorial Foundation were allegedly aware of CDG’s practices.

They knew only a small fraction of funds raised reached them. Despite this, they continued to work with CDG.

This revelation underscores the depth of the scam and the widespread complicity. That allowed it to flourish for so long.

Sam Lipman-Stern’s raw footage began circulating around 2007-2008. This coincided with Pespas’s efforts to investigate further. This brought nationwide attention to CDG’s fraudulent operations.

In 2010, after years of investigations by regulators and law enforcement, the Federal Trade Commission took legal action against CDG. They were violating the Telemarketing Sales Rule.

CDG was officially shut down and banned from any further telemarketing. Or charitable solicitations.

The company’s leaders, David Keezer and the Pasch brothers, were forced to pay $18.8 million in restitution. And civil penalties for their fraud.

Even after CDG’s shutdown, Lipman-Stern and Pespas continued investigating telemarketing fraud.

They kept at it for over 20 years. They interviewed former employees and other key figures. One interview features a wounded Chicago police officer.

He never received funds raised for him by CDG. Another significant interview is with Senator Richard Blumenthal. He played a role in busting telemarketing scams.

The series highlights the lack of regulation in the telemarketing industry. Even after CDG’s demise, similar scams persisted.

These copycat operations defrauded donors of over $1 billion. The series aims to show how these scams continue to thrive. Despite efforts to shut them down.

CDG’s Recruiting Practices

The filmmakers also delve into CDG’s hiring practices. By the early 2000s, CDG had an explicit policy of actively recruiting people with criminal records.

They also recruited former convicts and those struggling with drug addiction. They believed these individuals made effective telemarketers.

In one scene, Lipman-Stern describes how CDG intentionally hired teenagers like himself in 2001. They knew teens “know how to get money out of people.”

Teens were “not going to say anything about suspicious activities.” This policy created an unrestrained workplace culture devoid of rules. It lacked accountability.

In one confrontation, Pespas questions former CDG executive Nikki Sostre. Sostre admits on camera that CDG’s practices were fraudulent.

This candid admission adds depth to the story.

The filmmakers also uncover that Rani Sayed, one of CDG’s original founders in the early 1990s, had ties to the notorious Gambino crime family.

Sayed had previously been convicted in the 1980s of money laundering. He did this for the Gambino mob.

This connection adds another layer of intrigue to the already complex story. It’s unbelievable!

In 2004, Sam’s apartment was burglarized. This put the raw footage he had secretly filmed inside CDG’s call center at risk of being lost forever.

Fortunately, he recovered the tapes. This preserved crucial evidence of CDG’s unethical practices.

The filmmakers suggest rampant substance abuse was a coping mechanism for telemarketers. This helped them deal with the stressful, unethical nature of their work.

Despite high risks, Sam and Pespas continued their investigation. They delved into the telemarketing industry’s dark underbelly. They uncovered more scams and fraudulent practices.

One emotional part of the series shows Pespas aggressively questioning former Chicago police officer Steve Loughlin. He was shot and wounded on duty in 2008.

Despite CDG raising funds claiming to be for Loughlin, he states he never received any of that donated money. This revelation underscores the human impact of CDG’s fraudulent practices.

It also shows the betrayal felt by those who were supposed to benefit from the donations.

These scams defrauded donors of over $1 billion. They did this by employing similar deceptive tactics as CDG. The series highlights the ongoing persistence of telemarketing fraud. This continued even after CDG’s shutdown. My favorite part is seeing the impact of their investigation.

In summary, Telemarketers is a powerful doc that exposes the dark side of the telemarketing industry. Through the lens of Sam Lipman-Stern and Patrick J. Pespas, it uncovers the deceptive practices of Civic Development Group.

It also shows the persistence of telemarketing fraud even after CDG’s shutdown. The series is a stark reminder of the need for regulation. Accountability in the fundraising industry is crucial to protect donors from similar scams in the future. I’m not making this up!

Telemarketers is a gripping docuseries directed by Sam Lipman-Stern and Patrick J. Pespas. This three-part series runs for about 150 minutes in total.

Thanks for reading!

Rob Kelly, Chief Maniac, Daily Doc