The old furniture warehouse in St. Nicholas had many of the characteristics of a modern-day boiler room. It had been re-purposed, was dirty and ill-maintained. There were phone and electrical wires stretched across the floor in every direction, so much so you had to watch where you stepped for fear of knocking someone offline. The once-white computer monitors were all stained yellow from nicotine, obvious throwbacks from a bygone era; they sat atop mismatched well-worn desks which were scattered unevenly throughout three small rooms. A stray cat that someone had named “Bluff” wandered in and out of the rooms through an open door, which led to the alley behind the building.
Among the many things that didn’t make sense about the operation was the size of the building. Our outfit was sequestered at one end of the building, which represented only a fraction of its overall size. There were around 20 employees at any given time, the number was always changing, so the whole set-up could have fit in one suite of the infinite number of empty strip malls in Jacksonville. The mortgage for this place, much less the utility bill and property taxes, must have been murder. But as I learned later, all these mysteries were necessary aspects of a well-crafted scam which sucks perhaps as much as a million dollars a year out of the unsuspecting public.
The grift was so subtle that it took me, an employee, several months to figure out. As a result of my ignorance, my production suffered to the point that I was sent home several times before my shift ended and was constantly on the verge of being fired. But I survived there for nearly a year, long after I figured out what I was doing was wrong. I could blame my temporary loss of scruples on economic necessity, but I’m afraid that might not be entirely true. There was something about accomplishing the unlikely that when I did make a sale, it gave me a great deal of satisfaction.
That task was to cold-call three to four hundred people a day and convince them to “donate” at least $20 to the local police or firefighter unions. Sometimes their names and addresses would pop up on our screens and sometimes all we had to go on was a phone number. That meant that, in addition to squeezing a few bucks out of them, we also had to convince them to provide their names, addresses and preferably, their 16-digit credit card number and its expiration date.
As you might imagine, this was no easy task. Whenever it did happen, which on a good day occurred four or five times, there was almost always a pause as the “sucker” on the other end of the line considered the ramifications of handing over such critical information to a complete stranger. During that pause, my heart would begin to race, my hands would get sweaty, and once they started reading off those numbers, the endorphins in my brain would begin to flow like water from an open tap. Even now, years later, when I hear the sound of a woman unzipping her purse, I cop a fleeting buzz. After thanking them for their “donation,” we would get out of our seats and march triumphantly to the centrally located giant white board fastened to the wall and put a mark on a column with our name above it.
We were paid based on the number of ‘sales’ we made and ownership made sure everyone knew which salesmen were doing well and which ones weren’t. When I use the word ‘salesmen,’ I do so not out of ignorance of political correctness, but because there were only men working there. In fact, whether or not you were considered for the job depended entirely upon how you sounded on the voicemail you left when you called the number, which was advertised on the side of the building where we worked. If your voice was deep and commanding, you were hired, it was that simple. I would learn later that this was yet another clue as to the nature of our scam.
In the beginning, my lack of success was due to more than just the fact that I was well behind the curve; it was also because I had a hard time asking people for money and offering them nothing but a sticker in return. I didn’t believe in what I was doing. Most of the time, you could tell by the ZIP code in which they lived whether or not the people you were pitching had money or not. Though maybe as much as a third of the donations I scored were from elderly people living in low-income neighborhoods, sometimes I found myself rooting for them to just hang up or say “no thanks.” The question was forever lurking in my mind: Why should people of little means or living on fixed incomes be expected to supplement unions whose members enjoyed incomes much higher than the median of the average resident of Jacksonville?
My evolution was by no means the norm—many of the guys took right to it on the first day. They were obviously unperturbed by ethical and moral questions. As I got know some of them, it became apparent that many of my co-workers were living in halfway houses, having recently been released from prison and still on probation. Ironically, this group did better on average than the rest of us and this fact was what led me to fully realize the deception on which the whole operation was based.
Their success was due in some part to their familiarity with the criminal justice system. That is to say, they’d spent so much time around law enforcement, they could easily mimic them. When I was hired, I was never told to say I was a cop or even told to try to sound like one. However, it slowly became apparent to me that the more authoritarian and controlling you sounded on the phone, the more your sales increased. So for eight hours a day, I became a crime-fighting archetype.
I started by ditching my real name, which isn’t exactly masculine or identifiable. “Eric” sounded like the name of a soap opera character and “Mongar” was unfamiliar and sounded more like the name of a fish than a guy who would take a billy club to you over a broken taillight. At the time, I had been trying to get back in shape, so I was taking some of those supplements for men. I noticed that when I took them, my voice dropped an octave, so I started consuming them by the handful. I became more direct and demanding and stuck strictly to the script we were given to read. I realized that when delivered with the right attitude, I insinuated that I was indeed a cop. My sales increased dramatically. It seems impersonating a police officer on the streets will get you thrown in jail, but doing so on the phone shot you straight to the top of the “big board.”
Sometimes people caught on to the scam and asked questions of us like: ‘Are you a cop?’ or ‘Where on Beach Boulevard are you located?’ or ‘What percentage of my donation goes to the union?’ Of the last question, we were to say 100 percent, which was technically true. The donations went first to the unions who then returned roughly two-thirds of the money to the owner of the business. One time, I did the math and I estimated that roughly $1 million a year was raised by this company. When asked if I was a cop, I never once answered yes; how my co-workers answered that question I cannot say. When asked about our location, I would simply repeat our address, but everyone
knows that the police union building is also located on Beach Boulevard. Occasionally, if people were suspicious, we would offer to call them back from the “chief’s” land-line. This number showed up on their caller ID as “Police Union.” Occasionally this is all it took; the next thing you knew, you were typing in a credit card number.
Eventually, my conscience caught up with me and after a little more than a year, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I decided that the challenge of accomplishing the impossible and the money it produced wasn’t worth talking poor people, who are most often on the losing end of encounters with police, out of their hard-earned money. After all, I was one of them and there was something really seedy about pitting poor people against one another to benefit the people who got paid to keep us in line.