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The Damning and Frustrating 'Telemarketers' Finale Lays Out Decades of Police-Backed Fraud

By Alison Lanier | TV | August 28, 2023 |

By Alison Lanier | TV | August 28, 2023 |


Telemarketers, the three-part HBO documentary series, came to a frustrating and damning conclusion on Sunday night. Sam Lipman-Stern and Pat Pespas, two former telemarketers for the grandfather of all shady telemarketing agencies, CDG, have spent the last two decades investigating telemarketing scams just like it, and Telemarketers is the result. CDG was a wild west of fraudulent fundraising calls that stocked its call centers with employees who couldn’t get other legitimate jobs for one reason or another—and thus wouldn’t be tempted to ask too many questions.

“Fundraising” here is a glossy byword for fraud. This money didn’t go to charity; the vast majority of it went to the telemarketing company executives. And the small percentage that did actually go to police organizations ended up lining pockets. In short, it was and is all a massive scam.

The dupes at the other end of the ongoing scam now are leeched by robots, using recorded voices of once-employed human telemarketers, and driven to donate by lines that are both as dishonest as ever and which draw on the deep political divides in America. A deep-voiced man tells you he’s calling for the brave police officers under fire from the lying media and being assassinated for doing their jobs and who absolutely aren’t racist—Who do you think gives money after that crock of bullshit? For context, the new president of the FOP stands on stage next to Trump at campaign events. And that’s the man who hired CDG for his state FOP fundraisers in the first place.

One of the most difficult takeaways from Telemarketers isn’t that these crimes are still happening. It’s that the police FOPs and conservative PACs that benefit from them are coconspirators who will never be held responsible. Even a previous FTC official said outright, the only group that can feasibly go after the police for these massive frauds and theft is Congress. Can you see Congress going after the police for obvious, destructive crimes, even those that have been aired to the public? Nah, me neither. “Who wants to be on the other side of the FOP?” asks one interviewee. They’re simply too powerful to go after directly. The FTC did try to go after the fraudulent PACs that use the same companies and the same tactics—and it went to Congress, and it went nowhere.

And none of this is a secret: journalists have been reporting on these crimes for years, including one reporter who plays a recording of herself going into one of these new companies—only to be literally chased out of the buildings with threats by the owner of the company, who threatens her with—you guessed it—the police, as well as telling her he has her license plate number and will “track you down.”

The more Sam and Pat dive into their investigation, the culmination of a twenty-year journey from funny call-center videos to HBO documentary, it becomes painfully obvious that this criminal industry is operating with the legitimatizing and protective involvement of the police organizations, who get a free payday in the form of their 10% share of donations.

If this sounds very mob-like, it’s because it is. Pat and Sam and their crew are hassled out of the hotels where they’re staying to investigate an FOP convention. The ranks close as soon as a camera appears. But the modern telemarketing practices feel ghastly in their own right. At one point, Pat engages with a robo-caller—who turns out to be the voice of Sam and Pat’s dead coworker. The company uses this dead man’s recorded voice to impersonate a police officer and lie about where the donation money is going. Icky doesn’t even begin to cover it.

These calls are so prolific and so insidious it’s hard to believe they feel so ordinary to receive. There are Wikihow articles on how to get them off your back. There are meaningless do-not-call lists, as companies like CDG get shut down and then sell their phone numbers to other telemarketing set-ups.

The documentary series feels like the quintessential David and Goliath story. It doesn’t stop at the police unions; political PACs are even easier to “fundraise” for because of their First Amendment protections as a political organization. It’s all defrauding—and it’s illegal no matter which way you slice it. Piles of bribes came to light. Even the cops who got caught carrying out massive fraud barely got a slap on the wrist even after being publicly exposed.

Sam and Pat go all over DC. They talk to the FTC, the FEC, and even a senator…And of course there’s no legal action. The machinery keeps turning, and the grift keeps sweeping in cash. Pat goes undercover, working for one of the new companies—and finds that nothing at all has changed, despite decades of lawsuits and publicity.

But the documentary is the thing, in the end: twenty years of stories, evidence, fraud, and pain, as well as the development of a deep and lasting friendship. There’s also the deep and abiding earnestness that radiates from Pat throughout the final episode: he believes that this documentary project can really make a difference, where everything else failed. You want his belief to be more contagious than it is, but the fact remains, he’s doing something. He isn’t a trained interviewer. He fumbles. He gets names wrong at crucial moments. But he remains the upstart hero of the story…even if the story is a hopeless one. As the soul of the project, he does the work that he believes matters. And that’s worth the watch all on its own.

The full docuseries is now streaming on Max.