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HBO’s Telemarketers exposes a familiar scam from the inside

HBO’s Telemarketers exposes a familiar scam from the inside
Patrick Pespas, a CDG telemarketer, being filmed at work for a documentary that became HBO's Telemarketers (Image from Telemarketers via HBO)

“We gotta take ’em down from the inside,” call center worker Patrick J. Pespas says to his friend Sam Lipman-Stern, who is filming him. “If I ripped off that much money in the name of police, I’d be in jail,” he says later.

The friends’ attempt to expose the rip-off has become Telemarketers (HBO, Sundays at 10, and on Max), a documentary series filmed by the very people calling and asking for money on behalf of police charities and other organizations.

From inside a call center, we see people making call after call while working for Civic Development Group, an organization that started the scam by paying organizations to let them use their name and fundraise on their behalf. This access is the show’s primary strength.

The callers convince people who don’t hang up to give small amounts of money, a tiny fraction of which goes back to the organization; the corporation profits, making its owners rich.

The people calling are a motley crew: teenagers, people recruited at halfway houses, formerly incarcerated people who can’t get hired somewhere else.

Their workplace is joyous, with pranks and drugs and a not a care in the world that one of the employees is filming and uploading clips to YouTube. Both at the time and interviewed later, the employees speak of it with fondness, despite having ethical qualms about the work itself.

A person wearing a headset, talking, looking into the camera
Sam Lipman-Stern, a CDG telemarketer who filmed what was happening at his job, and is co-directing Telemarketers (Image from Telemarketers via HBO)

The process by which these employees defraud people through “police telemarketing scams,” as Sam Lipman-Stern calls them, is fascinating, and Telemarketers is worth watching for that alone.

Sam’s footage from the 2000s and even early 2010s is so amateurish it looks like the tapes I have from a 1980s camcorder. Yet it is also unambiguous, capturing exactly how people are talked into sending checks to get local Fraternal Order of Police decals for their cars, perhaps in the misguided belief that this will protect them from speeding tickets.

As telemarketers, Sam and his friend Patrick, or Pat, have very different approaches. Sam sounds like a radio announcer or infomercial host, using slick sales tactics, while Pat’s approach is like a neighbor talking you into something.

This work is not lucrative for the callers, but it is work. “He has no choice but to go there and work for these horrendous people,” Pat’s wife Sue says. “You try to find a job with a criminal record—ha!”

Patrick is an incredible character, an addict and loving husband. We meet him doing heroin on camera and then, soon after, landing a sale and telling the camera, “If you noticed, before I sniffed that bag … I couldn’t get a sale.”

In sunglasses, a plaid sport coat, and unkempt hair, he looks like Andy Kaufman as Tony Clifton when Sam and Pat set out to interview people. I’m truly amazed he was able to land those interviews, though his earnestness and passion seems to be enough to assuage people who might notice the cracks in the attempt at professionalism.

Two people, both looking at the camera, one pointing at it; a thicket of trees is behind them
Patrick Pespas and Sam Lipman Stern (Image from Telemarketers via HBO)

During the first episode of Telemarketers, we get glimpses of action being taken outside: FTC fines, officials giving press conferences. Meanwhile, the employees point out how nothing fundamentally changes.

The show’s point of view stays firmly with Sam and Pat and their colleagues and friends, from inside the scam. The owners, for example, show up in brief photos only.

We don’t zoom out; this doesn’t become a comprehensive overview of the telemarking industry. And that perspective doesn’t change throughout the three episodes.

Alas, in its second episode, the series loses its focus.

It hops around to very interesting ideas and avenues of exploration: the culpability and involvement of police lodges who were using the telemarketing company; the continuation of this scam under new companies, which use people working from home; businesses and stores who think they’re buying police protection with the stickers; how the scripts have evolved to take advantage of people, like preying on those who think the police are now victims; unregulated political action committees and the lack of will to regulate them.

One layer that emerges and then fades again is that this is a documentary about an investigative documentary produced by people who don’t know what they’re doing and are still doing it anyway. Patrick makes calls to organizations from a fast food restaurant—until a manager says, “You need to get the fuck out of my McDonald’s.”

One thesis statement may come from Patrick’s mother, who tells us “he’s good with the bullshit lines,” and wants to know why his friend is following him with a video camera. “What is the purpose of it?”

I’ll add other questions: Are the cliffhangers necessary to keep people watching? Does Telemarketers need to be three hours? Is it a feature film masquerading as a three-hour show? (No, no, and yep.) Of course, this is a structural problem for documentary TV these days, which rarely justifies its runtime, but can only get made as a multipart series.

Thankfully, the third and final episode picks up the investigation years later, mid-pandemic, and lifts Telemarketers back to the center line established in the first episode.

Watching the determination of two colleagues turned friends is reward enough. And there’s a sense of hope here: Can two people, fumbling through attempts to document and investigate, inspire any kind of change?

Patrick and Sam meet up with a journalist, Sarah Kleiner, who’s been reporting on the same subject matter. Kleiner tells them, “I had documents, I had the black and white numbers, but you guys had all the stories.” It’s those stories that make Telemarketers such a compelling watch.

Telemarketers

A fascinating look inside faux charity fundraising, filmed by the people who called us asking for money. B

What works for me:

  • Compelling footage from the inside
  • Patrick J. Pespas, as a character and crusader

What could be better:

  • Better focus for the saggy middle episode
  • Deleting the fake cliffhangers between episodes

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Happy discussing!

Lyman Sevinop

Friday 22nd of September 2023

Awesome! I am glad to see we are finally celebrating true American heroes. Maybe as a follow up we can have a show featuring the tourists who deface national parks and abuse wildlife since they do not get enough credit for all the good that they do, nor enough money.

Corey

Monday 21st of August 2023

So yucky, I feel like I took a dive into a cesspool.

On one hand, it is one of the scuzziest, sleaziest, low brow, déclassé and somewhat disturbing and depressing docs I’ve ever seen. And, I pride myself on watching and seeing every doc produced.

On the other hand, it is what it is, and given the subject, it looks, feels, and sounds like it’s supposed to.

But, we’re taking the dregs of society, scams, felons, cons, folks doing heroin and ripping bong hits while being interviewed. Oh, and…New Jersey is the backdrop.

Gross. Yucky. Déclassé. Vile. Depressing AF! You can skip it, trust me.

Melissa

Monday 21st of August 2023

Thanks for the review! I'll check this out once all the episodes have aired.

Melissa

Sunday 17th of September 2023

@Andy Dehnart, I finally watched this, and agree the first and third episodes were pretty good, but the second was all over the place. But overall I think it brings good awareness to the problem. I don't know how fundraising telemarketing is even still legal, but it looks like it's just too big to be brought down.

Out of all the foul things in this show, I was most horrified by the convicted murderer, yikes!

Andy Dehnart

Monday 21st of August 2023

Good plan! I'll look forward to hearing what you think.