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August 14, 2023

HBO's 'Telemarketers' docuseries investigates N.J. call center scam

Codirector Sam Lipman-Stern examines Civic Development Group, his former employer that was shut down by the Federal Trade Commission in 2010

TV Documentaries
Telemarketers HBO Provided Image/HBO

In HBO's 'Telemarketers,' codirector Sam Lipman-Stern chronicles a two-decade investigation into the telemarketer Civic Development Group, a now-shuttered company based in New Jersey.

When Sam Lipman-Stern took a job as a telemarketer at Civic Development Group in New Brunswick in the early 2000s, he thought he was raising money for police and veterans charities. He later found out that the company's owners were funneling donations directly into their pockets.

This scheme and the role it played in creating the telemarketing industry is at the center of "Telemarketers," an HBO documentary that premiered on Sunday. In three episodes, Lipman-Stern shares the results of an investigation he began in 2007 with Pat Pespas, his former coworker, to uncover the truth about CDG and its scams.

At its height, CDG was one of the largest telemarketing fundraisers in the country, soliciting donations for charities serving police, firefighters and veterans, the New York Times reported. As a 14-year-old high school dropout, Lipman-Stern secured a job at the North Jersey call center along with a host of ex-convicts and drug dealers.

He eventually started filming his days at the call center, where employees could smoke and drink, get tattooed in the office and paint graffiti on the building's exterior so long as quotas were fulfilled, reported. Many telemarketers became friends with one another, even as they grew unsettled by the company's business practices. 

Pespas, a top-performing employee dealing with drug addiction, began investigating CDG and the telemarketing industry with Lipman-Stern, trying to understand the origins of the telemarketing schemes that have since become commonplace.

"One of the things that we wanted to show is that it's not the callers — the callers are just trying to do a job," Lipman-Stern told Variety. "They're just people who are down on their luck, or they have a criminal history. We wanted to give them the ability to tell the story. It's the heads of these companies that could make the change in this industry." 

CDG allowed its telemarketers to solicit donations on behalf of the Fraternal Order of Police and organizations serving paralyzed veterans and cancer survivors. While the company told consumers that the charities would receive 100% of their donations, only about 10% would be sent to the organizations, with the remainder going to CDG. 

In 2010, CDG was shut down by the Federal Trade Commission following an investigation into its business practices, with owners Scott Pasch and David Keezer being required to pay $18.8 million and permanently leave the industry. Pasch and Keezer did not participate in the documentary.

After the company was shut down, Lipman-Stern and Pespas continued their investigation. The two tracked down some of their former coworkers and allowed them to speak candidly about their experiences. In some cases, the investigators uncovered the "shaking down" of strangers for donations that they couldn't afford and allegations that the FOP was in on the scam, Time reported. 

Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal sat down with the filmmakers to talk about federal efforts to curb telemarketing schemes, which disproportionately impact seniors. Codirector Adam Bhala Lough's goal, as he told Variety, is for a congressional hearing about the telemarketing industry to use testimony from Lipman-Stern, though it's unclear if that plan will come to fruition.

The filmmakers told Rolling Stone that they want the documentary to be educational for people who are victimized by these scams and provide information about the industry's business practices. It comes as more states have made efforts to restrict how and when telemarketing companies are able to call people. 

Earlier this year, New Jersey passed a bill that requires telemarketers to introduce themselves, what company they work for and what they're selling within the first 30 seconds of any phone call made. Telemarketers are also required to provide contact information for their companies to help protect people from scammers.  

The first episode of "Telemarketers" is available to stream on MAX. The remaining episodes will air on HBO at 10 p.m. on Aug. 20 and Aug. 27, before being made available to stream.