Before the introduction of caller ID and the “Scam Likely” feature, answering the phone was a test of patience, as telemarketers were a common annoyance. However, the reality behind those call centers was far darker than one might expect. “Telemarketers,” a three-part docu-series set to premiere on HBO, delves into the story of Civic Development Group (C.D.G.), once a major telemarketing fundraising company in the United States that was involved in a massive consumer fraud scheme.
Directed by Sam Lipman-Stern and Adam Bhala Lough, the series begins with shaky camcorder footage filmed by Lipman-Stern at one of C.D.G.’s call centers in New Jersey. Lipman-Stern, a 14-year-old high school dropout and aspiring documentarian, captures the rowdy atmosphere of the call center, where employees drink tallboys and give each other tattoos while on the phone. Patrick J. Pespas, Lipman-Stern’s colleague and friend who was struggling with substance abuse at the time, becomes the film’s narrator. In one scene, Pespas slurs his words slightly as he addresses the camera, revealing the true nature of their work: “What we do is we call up people… and we chisel them out of money.”
While C.D.G. claimed to raise funds for various charitable causes such as police organizations, firefighter groups, and cancer charities, it was discovered that the company was keeping the majority of the money for itself. According to the Federal Trade Commission, 85 to 90 percent of the funds went directly into C.D.G.’s coffers, despite promises made by telemarketers that all the money would go to the charities. C.D.G. was eventually banned from telemarketing and soliciting charitable donations and closed down in 2010. The series also presents evidence suggesting that many of the organizations involved were aware of the fraud.
Lipman-Stern, who had moved to Los Angeles, initially approached his cousin, Bhala Lough, with the idea for a documentary about C.D.G.’s fraudulent scheme. Bhala Lough was drawn to the unique characters in the footage and sent some of it to filmmakers Benny and Josh Safdie, who agreed to executive produce the series. The archival footage was described as “jaw-dropping” by Benny Safdie, and the decision was made to expand the project beyond a found-footage art film.
During the early stages of production, Benny Safdie suggested that Lipman-Stern and Bhala Lough resume their investigation, which had been put on hold for years. In 2020, Lipman-Stern and Bhala Lough returned to New Jersey, reuniting Lipman-Stern with Pespas after eight years. Their investigation ultimately led them to Congress.
In a recent video interview, Lipman-Stern and Pespas discussed the inspiration behind the project and the current state of telemarketing in America. Lipman-Stern was initially motivated to film at C.D.G. due to the intriguing mix of characters at the company, which included teenagers, ex-convicts, and drug dealers. Pespas added that the job at C.D.G. was an opportunity for those who had trouble finding employment, resulting in a collection of individuals with various issues. They both felt that there was something worth documenting at the call center, especially since they were raising money for supposed charitable organizations.
The realization that they were calling on behalf of scams came gradually, as the names of the charities became increasingly suspicious. Lipman-Stern began researching online and discovered that many of the charities were listed as some of the “worst charities in the United States,” where very little of the money raised went to its intended recipients.
After the Federal Trade Commission shut down C.D.G. in 2010, Lipman-Stern and Pespas were driven to learn more about the story. They started reaching out to the charities involved, seeking answers and trying to understand their role in the fraud. Their investigation eventually led them to Washington, where they met with Ann Ravel, a former commissioner of the Federal Election Commission, and discussed the need for common-sense legislation to regulate the telemarketing industry.
Despite differences in their goals, with Lipman-Stern wanting to dismantle the industry and Pespas advocating for regulation, both agree that raising awareness about the issue is crucial. They hope that their documentary will shed light on the reality of telemarketing and the need for change.
When asked how they now respond to calls from telemarketers, Lipman-Stern finds it fascinating, admitting that they recently received a call from-