My Life Inside a 1980s Boiler Room
Suckering the gullible and “the great unwashed” has been a time-honored tradition in America since the Articles of Confederation. From 1800s medicine shows to 2010s online Viagra and Cialis scams, the list of methods used to successfully part Americans from their money is perpetual and never-ending. My personal role in this cavalcade of cruelty is quite small, yet is ultimately a stain on my conscience nonetheless.
Our story takes place in 1988, at the unmarked offices of Broughton Hall Publishing at 3554 State Street in Santa Barbara, California. I was a 20-year-old college student in desperate need of spending money. Broughton-Hall were a mendacious peddler of hokey booklets that promised riches and rewards to credulous and similarly desperate rubes all over the United States. We operated a pseudo-boiler room, of sorts, in which we’d take incoming long-distance calls from people all over the country who’d been pulled into our orbit by classified ads placed in their local throwaway weekly papers and in niche magazines. These ads promised them “Foreclosed Homes Available for $1”, “How to Get a Job in TV Commercials” or “How to Get a Job on a Cruise Ship”, among other schemes.
This was how I made my living during the summer of 1988, between my Junior and Senior years of college at UC-Santa Barbara. Upon reflection and further investigation, the whole thing has turned out to be even more unseemly — and criminal — than I’d remembered.
I don’t recall how I stumbled upon the gig answering calls at Broughton Hall, but my background in outbound phone soliciting (aka “telemarketing”) was obviously impressive enough. I’d attempted to sell storm windows to homeowners in sunny San Jose, California for a few months while in high school, working for a company called Roval; I’d similarly earned some subsequent drinking money conducting surveys for a Board of Supervisors candidate in Santa Barbara earlier in 1988 (he lost).
The woman who hired and brought me into Broughton Hall was a mousy thirtysomething who effectively gave me my script and then set me loose. Her oversight, as we’ll soon learn, was nearly nonexistent, which made for a much more satisfying work environment than I’d anticipated. I worked elbow-to-jowl with about 25 or 30 other “sales reps”, I guess you’d call us, taking calls for four hours at a time from our hapless marks. We were a motley mix of college students, housewives and yes, pseudo-professional phone solicitors, some of whom had been putting in daily 8-hour shifts at Broughton Hall for several years. I remember at least one dopey lifer who let it be known it was that he — not us moonlighting part-timers — who was the top telemarketing dog in the office.
What we were “selling” to our callers was a variety of dreams, escapes and get-rich-quick ideas — and ultimately, a pack of lies. Broughton Hall would place simple classified ads that peddled some fantastic hook — “Earn money Reading Books! $30,000/year potential”; “Repossessed VA and HUD homes available from government from $1 without credit check”; “Wanted: People interested in becoming actors for TV commercials”, and so on.
These ads weren’t running in the Wall Street Journal nor the New York Times classifieds; rather, they’d go into the ludicrous supermarket tabloid The Weekly World News, or in local publications such as the Jewell County Record, the Kokomo Tribune, the Tustin News and the San Bernardino County Sun. I was also able to uncover placements in magazines like Black Enterprise, Field & Stream and Kiplinger’s Personal Finance (!).
Each ad provided an (805)-area code phone number to call for details. This was usually 805–682–7555 or 805–962–8000. The caller would identify to us that they were calling “Extension T-1018” or “Extension “J-1060”, which would then tell each rep in the call center which pitch we needed to read off. “T” might mean we’d talk to them about how to get a government job; “J” might mean how to get a job on a cruise ship; “X” might be how to buy a home for $1.
The codes for which scripts to read were on a taped-up piece of paper on the walls in front of our tiny desks. I’d take a call from someone looking for a job in the airline industry, for instance, and I’d start talking about how the airlines were hiring right now, how the opportunities were too lucrative to pass up, and that — wait for it — for only $10 we’d send you a book called “How To Get a Job in the Airline Industry” that would tell you all about it. No homes, no jobs, no cars, no TV auditions. A book.
Invariably and predictably, this was a big letdown for my callers — and it’s where my finely-honed sales skills would have to come into play, had I had any. With the passage of time, I’m a bit fuzzy on which skills I even used, exactly, but I recall being at least decent at the job, if not quite a “top seller”. I also recall that my soft-spoken, mousy-haired boss really didn’t care much one way or the other.
The whole scam was to sell books — not books, mind you, but cheap paper booklets. These were written by pseudonymous authors like “Robert Hancock” and “Sylvia Carpenter”, both of whom, judging by the range of titles they published, certainly knew a great deal of information about a great many completely unrelated things.
Broughton Hall wouldn’t really let the telemarketers see those 8.5”x11” paper booklets, shameful as they were. They were kept in a locked back room, yet I was able to find my way in there once with some co-workers who had tipped me off as to just how sordid this whole endeavor was. The booklets were flimsy and poorly-written lists of tips and advice, more than anything else — nothing that would truly enable one to buy a home for $1 nor get a job in TV, but that pretended to do so well enough that, I’m assuming, the company could claim “truth in advertising” on some delusional level.
Our customers, if they didn’t balk at the $10 price, would then be asked to provide a credit card for the book (most didn’t have one), or accept the book “C.O.D.” (cash on delivery), which was the inevitable payment method of choice for most. While COD ran the risk of remorseful non-acceptance once the mailman showed up at the door, the decline rates for the book were far smaller than one might expect. I seem to recall a figure along the lines of 25% rejected and returned, which meant that 75% of our COD customers were still excited and eager for their promised financial or employment windfalls, even when the sad and depressing booklet actually arrived a week later.
Who were our customers, ultimately? For lack of a better term, they were the near-permanent denizens of America’s lower socio-economic stratas — my countrymen and countrywomen who habitually read publications like the Weekly World News, and who would spend money on long-distance calls based upon promises made in a 2-line classified ad. Toll-free 1–800 numbers did exist in 1988, but ours was a full-charge long-distance call to the 805 area code. I suspected that Santa Barbara’s “805” area code played to our advantage, as it may have reminded our callers of the free calls they’d previously placed to “800” numbers.
They called from places like Murfreesboro, Tennessee and Hemet, California. They called from Dothan, Alabama and Alligator Point, Florida. They did not call from New York City, Cambridge nor San Francisco. I recall most calls ending in a disappointed “oh…no thanks…..nevermind”, once I’d provided my punchline, but occasionally I’d truly have to work hard to overcome objections to close the sale. “Wait, is this really going to work?”, I’d be asked. My response was invariably, “Take a look at the guide — it will tell you everything you need — and I’ll have it in today’s mail for you. Can I mail it out today? Will that be credit card or COD??”
One guy who’d called in about the foreclosed homes told me, “Ten dollars?! I only have two dollars — one for the home, and one for the call!”. Others might regale me with tales of their previous “acting experience” in junior high school musicals, or tell stories about that one time they’d flown on an airplane to grandma’s in Corpus Christie, and how they’d always had a love of airplanes and wouldn’t it be a real treat to work on one…? We even had an suckers-bet closing pitch for money-conscious consumers: “Send us a copy of your phone bill, and we’ll pay you back for the call!”. I have little insight into how, or whether, this was actually ever done.
Sometimes one of the two supervisors would tape a $10 bill on the wall in front of our row of phones. Whoever first conned, say, twenty customers into giving us their addresses and accepting COD delivery of these booklets that day would get the money. Tactics like these enabled Broughton Hall to become a powerhouse in their field, such as it was.
I believe in retrospect that my demoralization set in early, because even though I only worked at Broughton Hall for about 5 months, I moved quickly with several co-workers into “improving” our calls, solely and completely for our amusement. For instance, we’d dare each other to take calls using ridiculous foreign accents. I remember trying on my best “British” for one of my Tennessee gentleman callers, and then laughing so hard in the middle of my spiel that I hung up on him.
We inexplicably had the ability to each jump onto each other’s phone lines, using the landline phones with 6 square, clear-plastic punch-buttons that represented line 1, line 2, line 3, and so on up to 6. Getting onto each other’s calls was simply a matter of each of us pressing the same blinking square, indicating an incoming call, at the same time.
One other college student co-worker and I perfected this game in which we’d both jump on the same call as it came in, then “trade” lines in our script, one after the other. I’d read one out to the caller (“We’re excited that you called in about getting a government job today”), then he’d read the next one (“That’s why we’d like to tell you how to unlock the secrets of getting a job in the government”) — with no thought given to how absurd we must have sounded. Amazingly, we actually made it through most calls doing this gag without being caught, nor without cracking up. I only remember one person saying, “Hey — there are two of you talking!”, which we hotly denied before carrying on the gag. We tried to take it to the next level once, in which we traded off every word, but this unfortunately lasted about one sentence (“We’re.” “Excited”. “That”. “You” etc.) before we each lost it, and abruptly abandoned our caller.
I had a favorite co-worker toward the end whose name escapes me, but he was a Mexican-American who deliberately did everything in his power to make me laugh on his calls. In the course of taking down a customer’s mailing information, he loved to confirm the spelling of their names or streets by saying things like, “That’s a B, as in Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato Sandwich?” or “That’s a T, as in Turkey with Extra Gravy”? I don’t know how he held it together while doing that routine, but I know many of my own calls were severely disrupted by half-listening to his.
If it sounds like my aforementioned supervisor was fairly “hands-off”, that would be 100% correct. She either didn’t believe in call monitoring, or didn’t care to do so. Perhaps she liked the paycheck and hated employee conflict; perhaps she was retaliating on behalf of economically oppressed America by letting us persist in our shenanigans. I know that I skipped my final scheduled day of work in October 1988 due to having stayed up until 5am with the members of the rock band Mudhoney, who had played on my college radio show the night before and drunkenly crashed at my cousin’s and my apartment. When I sheepishly showed up a few days later to collect my final check, my absence was only barely noted, and I happily put Broughton Hall behind me.
Until I started writing this “wasn’t this early job of mine so funny?” piece, I didn’t even recall the name Broughton Hall. I only remembered where it was located on State Street, and using Google Earth, I was able to grab the photo you see here of the exact building in which it was located in 1988, which now houses a fitness center, as well as its address at 3554 State Street. Noting that it was located then next to the still-active coffee/tea/gift shop Vices & Spices, I called that business, and I asked them if they remembered the name of their next-door neighbor of 28 years ago, and after the longtime owner Henry Wildenborg went off to ask his longtime partner, Mr. Wildenborg called me back with the name Broughton Hall, which then fired off not only my memory synapses but also a furious Google search.
The Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported the following on August 27th, 1999, in a piece written by Debra Barayuga:
The ad jumped out at Nichole Cook, an at-home mother with one child and another on the way.
Read books at home and get paid for it, it basically said. Unable to work outside the home but needing the extra income, Cook, of Wahiawa, jumped at the chance.
She called the company and was impressed at how much they said she would be paid for proofreading manuscripts. “This is cool,” thought Cook. “This isn’t one of those scam things, or so I thought.”
Broughton Hall, a Santa Barbara telemarketing firm that advertised work-at-home guides in newspapers across the nation, including Hawaii, yesterday pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles to one count of false advertising in interstate commerce, a violation of the Federal Trade Commission Act.
“In their ads, they represented that people could earn $30,000 a year working at home and they had no basis for making that claim,” said U.S. Attorney Brent Whittlesey.
The violation carries penalties of a maximum six months in jail and $10,000 fine. Broughton Hall was ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $236,000 to victims of their fraudulent advertisements, Whittlesey said.
Broughton Hall, one of the largest telemarketing companies in Southern California, was also ordered to dissolve the corporation and is prohibited from conducting business anywhere in the future, he said.
The company had been operating for the past 20 years, with revenues of $4.5 million a year. Broughton Hall officials could not be reached for comment.
It turned out that this 1999 conviction was not Broughton Hall’s first brush with the wrong side of the law. In 1998, The Federal Trade Commission, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the California Attorney’s General office and the Tulare County, California, District Attorney’s office charged Broughton Hall and five other Santa Barbara-based telemarketing companies with fraud, and sought redress for complainants.
From a November 1998 press release:
The California Attorney General filed a civil action in state court in San Diego against Broughton Hall and its president Pamela R. Byrne. The complaint alleges defendants engaged in false advertising and unfair business practices and seeks an injunction, restitution and civil penalties.
According to the Attorney’s General office, Broughton Hall, which does business under the names of “Employment Information Center” and “Information Center,” places classified ads in newspapers and magazines throughout the United States. The ads are generally under the “Help Wanted,” “Employment Services” or “Business Opportunities” headings and promise $30,000 or more per year income potential for reading books or for doing typing or word processing at home. Broughton Hall does not, however, provide employment or employment services, the Attorney’s General office said. And consumers who call the company to get a refund are put on hold for as long as an hour, treated rudely, and hung up on.
Having been wholly shut down in 1999, there’s not much of a further online trail to follow for Broughton Hall. It appears that they received their proverbial just desserts. I had mostly forgotten this unsavory job of mine save for some of the wacky stories I’ve just relayed until my memory was jarred by my cousin Doug, who’d remembered me unwinding over a beer with stories from each day’s telemarketing sessions. I’m honestly surprised and chagrined that the scam lasted as long as it did at Broughton Hall.
Later, in the 1990s, we’d see the introduction of the nationwide “Do Not Call” list that legally prevented telemarketers from rudely interrupting one’s dinner (it is not a coincidence that Roval Storm Windows of San Jose, CA is no longer in business?). We got the internet, which provided far better ways to lure in unsuspecting prey. We saw the evisceration of the classified ad marketplace by CraigsList and others, which lessened or removed these sections from both supermarket tabloids and weekly newspapers (in the latter’s case, the classified ad-pocalypse removed weekly newspapers themselves). We effectively saw the death of COD.
And — perhaps FTC and local law enforcement actually kept their eyes on the ball for once, it would seem, and decided to prosecute deceitful and harmful trade practices such as Broughton Hall’s.
My role in all of this doesn’t keep me up much at night, given that I was a doofus post-teenager with zero true work experience and a lack of a finely-honed ethical compass. Rather, the story illustrates a small link in a long chain of hucksterism that undercuts the stories American commerce tells about itself, and illuminates uncomfortable truths about class, education and small-e exploitation. That would be “E”, as in “English Muffin with a Poached Egg on Top”.