“Telemarketers”: A Thrilling Ride Through Scams, Scandals, and Activism

By | August 11, 2023

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“Telemarketers,” a new docuseries on HBO, takes viewers on a thrilling journey into the world of telemarketing. Co-director Sam Lipman-Stern, a former telemarketer himself, looks back on his time working for a telemarketing firm and records the aggressive sales tactics and office culture. The series explores how the industry has evolved since then and delves into the economics of scamming. Lipman-Stern and co-director Adam Bhala Lough hope to shed light on the challenges activists face in making real change and educate the public about telemarketing scams. Daniel D'Addario reported

“Telemarketers” is a unique and thrilling three-part docuseries that provides an in-depth look at the world of telemarketing. Co-director Sam Lipman-Stern takes viewers on a journey through his personal experiences working at a telemarketing firm called CDG two decades ago. With footage he captured as a teenager, Lipman-Stern showcases the aggressive selling tactics used by him and his colleagues to solicit donations for police charitable unions. The series also explores the vibrant and chaotic office culture that existed during that time.

As the series progresses, Lipman-Stern and co-director Adam Bhala Lough reconnect with Lipman-Stern’s former colleague Pat Pespas to investigate how the telemarketing system has evolved and to determine how they can use their knowledge to dismantle it. With the support of esteemed executive producers Benny and Josh Safdie and Danny McBride, “Telemarketers” transforms from a high-energy portrayal of office revelry and salesmanship into a political thriller, an educational exploration of scam economics, and a poignant depiction of the challenges faced by activists striving for real change.

In an interview with Variety, Lipman-Stern and Bhala Lough discuss their motivations for creating the documentary and their hopes for its impact. Lipman-Stern explains that his passion for filmmaking and his desire to document the unique environment at CDG initially drove him to record the footage. He also reveals that the videos were initially shared on YouTube as a way to pass the time during his dull job. Lipman-Stern’s entry into telemarketing came about after he left high school and was searching for employment. Despite being underage, he was hired on the spot and entered a world filled with ex-convicts, drug dealing, and prostitution, all while raising money for police organizations.

The competitiveness of the telemarketing industry is highlighted by Lipman-Stern, who explains that employees had to reach a certain donation quota per hour or risk being sent home. This competitive environment, coupled with the thrill of making successful sales, led to a dopamine rush for the telemarketers. Lipman-Stern even mentions that he was taught how to sound like a caricature of a cop at the young age of fourteen.

When asked about their ability to elicit candid responses from their former colleagues, Bhala Lough credits Lipman-Stern’s insider status and his ability to relate to and gain the trust of his former coworkers. Lipman-Stern describes CDG as a dysfunctional family and emphasizes the strong bond that still exists between its members.

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The filmmakers express their surprise at the evolution of telemarketing scams since their time at CDG. They discuss the prevalence of robo-calls and the rise of virtual call centers, which make the practice less regulated and more lucrative. The series also sheds light on the efforts of Senator Richard Blumenthal to combat telemarketing scams and the challenges faced in achieving significant progress. Lipman-Stern and Bhala Lough reveal that telemarketing companies exploit loopholes in the tax code by utilizing political action committees (PACs), making it difficult for politicians to tighten regulations due to financial considerations.

The series includes an encounter with Senator Blumenthal, which was carefully planned and vetted. The filmmakers hope that their documentation of the scam and the subsequent request for Pat Pespas to testify as a whistleblower will lead to a congressional hearing. They believe that Senator Blumenthal, who has been a staunch advocate against telemarketing scams, will take their material seriously and grant them a hearing.

In addition to exposing the realities of telemarketing scams, Lipman-Stern and Bhala Lough hope that “Telemarketers” will educate viewers and discourage them from contributing to fraudulent charities. They believe that reaching a wide audience through entertainment is more effective than traditional news reports in effecting change. The filmmakers also stress that the callers themselves are not the problem; rather, it is the heads of telemarketing companies who have the power to make a difference. They share a personal example of a cancer charity they worked with, which turned out to be a scam, highlighting the importance of public generosity but also the need for vigilance.

Overall, “Telemarketers” promises to be a captivating and thought-provoking series that exposes the inner workings of the telemarketing industry, educates viewers about scams, and advocates for change..