Brian Markley is 92. He lives in a retirement home in Huntington Beach, Calif. He could win $10,000 a week for an entire year.
At least that’s what the letter he recently received from National Magazine Exchange would have him believe.
“What do you think?” Markley asked me. “Do you think it’s a scam?”
My first thought was yes, of course it’s a scam. According to the Federal Trade Commission, Americans lost $10.4 million last year to sweepstakes and lottery rackets.
But I decided to do a little digging. What I found was a Florida company that uses cutting-edge technology and hard-sell tactics to badger people into magazine purchases. Seniors are frequently the target of such efforts, according to the FTC.
“Sweepstakes scams continue to top the list of reported scams to our Fraud Watch Network help line,” said Kathy Stokes, director of fraud prevention programs for AARP.
“The losses can be significant,” she said. “And it can be a long con, with the scammer continually making excuses for why they need the target to send more money.”
I found no evidence that the company’s sweepstakes is bogus. For what it’s worth, there’s a web page listing past winners. But everything else about this thing stinks.
The sweepstakes appears to be little more than an inducement for getting people to call in. Once they do, the rough stuff begins.
The letter Markley received contained an “entry authorization number” that entitles him to participate in a sweepstakes that the letter says will result in a $520,000 cash prize for one lucky winner.
The catch is that he has to call National Magazine Exchange to verify his sweepstakes number and home address.
With Markley’s permission, I did just that. It was, to say the least, a surreal experience.
The call was answered by someone identifying himself as Mark. He sounded like a nice enough fellow.
We engaged in a little chitchat about how cool it would be to win the sweepstakes. Then Mark asked me which credit card I use most. He gave me a list of magazine titles and asked me to pick two.
When I selected Esquire and GQ, Mark complimented me on my good taste. But there was something strange about the way he spoke.
Even though he responded to routine questions, such as where he’s based (Largo, Fla.) and whether he’s a real person (he said he is), he didn’t seem to be actually listening.
Mark started repeating some of his answers when I pressed him on the current weather in Largo and asked what two plus two equals. He kept insisting that I provide the authorization number from the letter.
I finally did so. Mark was pleased that it checked out and asked me to hang on for a supervisor.
A woman calling herself Betty came on the line. She was indisputably human.
After trying to duck a direct answer, she acknowledged that Mark is in fact a robot — or as Betty put it, “an assisted technology.”
“Mark” is among the best voice recognition programs I’ve encountered in a commercial setting. It even includes stumbles and embarrassed laughter. It’s easy to see how effective the program must be at steering the unwary to a human being.
Betty’s job is to close the deal.
She added Men’s Journal and Conde Nast Traveler to my growing list of magazine subscriptions. She told me I qualified for a free diamond watch.
All I had to do was agree to pay $1.29 a week, which I could do through a bewildering array of payment plans.
Each time I balked at the terms, Betty came back with a new variation — four easy payments over 48 months, six easy payments over 36 months, six easy payments over 24 months.
No matter how much I resisted, Betty instantly responded with a different deal. She was determined not to let me off the phone until I disclosed my credit card number.
National Magazine Exchange is run by a Florida company called ThinkDirect Marketing Group. I tried, but I couldn’t get through to anyone at the company except “Natasha” in customer service, who grew increasingly irritated that I was wasting her time with nonsubscription questions.
According to Florida regulatory filings, ThinkDirect is owned by its chief executive, Dennis Cahill, and by a Maryland investment firm called Blackstreet Capital, which says it invests in companies “that are either in transition or are somehow misunderstood.”
A call to Blackstreet revealed that the firm’s voicemail box was full and I couldn’t leave a message. It hung up on me.
Cahill’s bio on ThinkDirect’s site says he sits on Blackstreet’s Investment Committee. His prior experience includes stints in videoconferencing and dental insurance, and as executive chairman of American Combustion Industries, which provides “a full range of mechanical, electrical and plumbing services for commercial and industrial facilities.”
ThinkDirect’s site says the company has openings for supervisors — the same job Betty holds.
“This in-bound sales position introduces you to the caller as a ‘Supervisor,’ ” it says. “Your closing skills walks them through the magazine package sales process & helps you achieve all your goals — Financial & Personal!”
Supervisors can work from home or at ThinkDirect’s “‘state of the art’ call center in Largo, Fla.”
“Top performers can earn over $22 an hour and do it with no cold calling. We generate all the leads for you!” (Thanks, Mark!)
Qualified supervisor applicants are “well spoken, organized, self-motivated, ambitious and like to make money.”
I can’t speak to Betty’s moneymaking desire, but she fit the rest of the bill. There wasn’t an answer I could give that she didn’t have a response to. She kept sweetening the deal and requesting my credit card number. She was relentless.
After about 20 minutes of her backing me into a telephonic corner, I easily understood how some people — particularly seniors — might just throw in the towel and agree to the magazine subscriptions.
Maybe that’s the end of it. Or maybe your contact info will be shared with or sold to other businesses, which is common in the direct-marketing world, and you’ll have more “Marks” and Bettys breathing down your neck.
Betty’s final offer was six easy payments of $11.18 over 12 months.
By this time, she’d presented so many different options, I couldn’t keep them straight — a strategy perhaps intended to accomplish just such a state of bewilderment.
It’s worth noting that the $67 sought by National Magazine Exchange for four annual subscriptions is considerably more than you’d pay on your own.
I visited the websites of Esquire, GQ, Men’s Journal and Conde Nast Traveler. One-year subscriptions to each magazine would run a combined $52.
I told Betty I needed to think things over. I thanked her for entering me (that is, Markley) in the sweepstakes and asked whether I could still get the diamond watch. She said no, not unless I subscribe.
Stokes at AARP advised recipients of lottery or sweepstakes letters to contact the FTC if they’re suspicious.
And if you get on the line with “Mark,” and he can’t solve a simple math problem, that’s another good reason to disengage.
Lazarus is a Los Angeles Times columnist who writes on consumer issues. He can be reached at email@example.com.