I staggered into Midtown Promotions at 10am on Wednesday. Seeing as how people were only trickling in for the morning meeting, the receptionist and another office assistant gave me some papers to fill out and sign. (Note: all spelling errors/typos are as they appeared…)
This is part 4 of our undercover report into IDT-Energy, an energy reseller in the New York area…
1. An “Authorization to Obtain Consumer Credit Report,” in which I agree that Midtown gets to take $14 out of my first paycheck to reimburse themselves for running background check into my “general reputation… or mode of living.” Not sure why this was necessary as we’re not working for them on a full-time salary.Click to enlarge images.
2. An independent contractor agreement that states I will not be reimbursed for fuel, transportation, or any other expenses, am, “not acting and other capacity for us. We will not deduct or pay income tax, unemployment insurance, government plan, employer health tax or similar amounts. YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH MIDTOWN PROMOTIONS, DOES NOT QUALIFY YOU FOR MINIMUM WAGE, WORKERS COMPENSATION OR UNEMPLYOMENT.”3. A “Covenant Not to Compete,” stipulating that I can’t call the customers myself or work for a competitor. I’m also not allowed to solicit any employees to quit.This also asks me to recognize that breaching this contract will, “cause irreparable harm to [Midtown] and that damages alone would not be adequate remedy.” I shudder to think. “Therefore the Independent Contractor of part 5 shall be entitle to an injunction restraining to Independent Contractor for the commission of such breach.” Correct us if we’re wrong, but we’re pretty sure spelling errors invalidate the clauses they’re found in. That is, if they spell injunction as “incunction,” they never obtain an injunction.
4. “Complice with the Law”
“You must comply with all federal, state, and local laws and licensing requirements.” “You will not represent yourself in any way as being an employee or contractor representing the perspective client with whom you are soliciting for.” The rest of the page contained similar language forbidding fraud and/or forgery.I also filled out a W-9 and was given a commission schedule to sign. Note under OVERRIDE SCHEDULE – LEADER. Leaders get paid 25 cents for every application by sales grunts working under them that leads to a paying customer. Assistant Managers got 50 cents. This type of commission structure suggest that Midtown Promotions is a multi-level-marketing (MLM) company. Typically, most people at the bottom level of a MLM scheme lose money.After I completed the paperwork, Eric asked a sheepish James to walk me down the Hallway of Motivation, as I dubbed it. It’s lined with posters with inspirational messages, like a quote from a historical figure, another from “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” and the rest from who knows, fortune cookies and popsicle sticks. I tuned most of it out.
We were supposed to arrive at the meeting at 10, but nothing got underway until 10:30. Listening to my tape recorder, the room was a jumble of incoherent conversation, which I found even more indecipherable in person.
We all stood around in a circle of, what I counted as twenty-eight people. Chalkboards sat on opposite walls. Then a guy in an expensive suit came in and walked straight to the far chalkboard, causing the circle to expand.
“Hey guys!” shouted Jameson.
“Now, that’s what I like to hear in the morning. How’s everybody doin’ this morning?!”
“GOOD,” they shouted, in unison, in harmony, like soldiers. I felt like the one kid in class mouthing the words to “under God” in the pledge of Allegiance.
Jameson was there to go over what Midtown considers the most important part of the process: the Five Steps, a sales-closing concept that was word-for-word the same as what ex-DS-MAX employees referred to online, and in an interview with The Consumerist. They went like this: 1) Introduction 2) Short Story 3) Presentation 4) Close 5) Rehash.
While discussing the first few steps, I caught Jameson saying this about the customer’s cancellation rights:
“Basically you’re making sure that they know that you’re not from Con Edison, that you’re from IDT-Energy. That’s one of the main things to make sure that we’re doing, >misleading the customers.”
Perhaps a Freudian slip?
Johnny continued, “All right? 90 percent of the complaints are when they think we’re from Con Edison. Wear the nametags out in the open and tell them numerous Times that we’re from IDT-Energy. People hear what they wanna hear— people think when you say, ‘Find us that bill’ that you’re from Con Edison.”
Then the meeting broke up with a cry of “Juice!” People milled around. David, one of the top salesman, a young guy sporting a pencil-thin goatee and with a Bluetooth earphone glued to his ear, overheard James saying I’d “done well” on my first day. David looked at me, nodded, and said, “Juice by you.”
I asked Carl what David meant.
“Juice is, like… that’s where it’s at.” Seeing my blank stare, he elaborated, “It’s a compliment. It’s like, that’s good news.”
“Hi, my name is Carl, and this is Brian. We’re with IDT-Energy. We’re the supplier for Con Edison and Keyspan. And we’re in your neighborhood today to make sure that you and your neighbors are getting the discount on your gas & electric bill. If you bring me a copy of your bill, I can find out if you qualify for the program.”
Hardly a silver-tongued pitch, but it seemed to work five out of ten times. When it failed, it was mainly because the customer didn’t speak enough English.
I practiced the pitch all day with Carl, finally taking on my own doors around 3:30. That I stopped asking questions seemed to give him more confidence in my abilities. Actually, it was because I realized he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, help me get any closer to verifying The Consumerist reader’s complaints about fake ConEd salesmen.
I stepped into an Allstate Insurance office in East Elmhurst around four pm, trying to get an appointment with the owner. Business contracts are worth more commission. The owner was “in a meeting… till the end of the day.” The other employees stood up and then sat right back down, keeping an eyeball on us. They can smell we’re shysters, I wanted to mutter to Carl, they recognize their own scent.
Leaving there, I saw a woman in the second-floor apartment looking out at us through a part in the curtains. She appeared to be wearing only a bra. “Don’t look now,” I said, “But we have our first admirer of the day.”
Carl turned to see the curtain swiftly close “Want to go knock?” he asked with a chuckle.
“Hell yeah,” I said, glad for any opportunity to crack the monotony.
We entered her building through the open doors. We made our way to her second floor door, which was also open. The woman from the window was practically waiting in the doorway when we rang. She had a thick and disproportionate face, too long and large for her body, and voluminous breasts falling out of her thin white nightgown.
“Oh no, I don’t pay my bill, the landlord sees to that,” she purred through a wry smile
I felt Carl’s grin at my back. I decided to end the pitch and get out of there. She didn’t close the door until we were long gone, looking after us. Heading up the street, we saw a hand holding her upstairs curtain open.
Not long after that, I made my first sale, to a single mom I could not help but ask if she was eighteen. “Eighteen?! I’m twenty-eight!” The poor dear, I hope they lose your paperwork.
From there, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the prospect of actually making any sales. What if I ruin their lives by jacking up their energy bills?
I never a saw a single person flip over the contract and read the fine print in the terms and conditions. If they did, they might have noticed this part:Under “Rates” it says that IDT-Energy guarantees a price 7% lower than ConEd’s for the first two months, but after that your price goes to a variable rate. So for the first two months customers think they’re getting great savings, and then you start paying based on whatever best deal IDT finagles on the wholesale energy market.
Carl made sure all our customers initialed every point on the “Customer Acknowledgment of Agreement and Notice of Cancellation Rights,” but I wondered whether all Midtown Promotion’s reps were so diligent. Or if the non-English speakers really understood the form they were signing.
I had to keep telling myself that they were free to make their own decisions. But sometimes things are not that clear-cut. Maybe they were confused and thought, due to their poor English, that I was from ConEd, that ConEd was reducing their bill. That we were answering their prayers.
It was very difficult, at the end of the day, to morally justify what I was doing. I wondered whether going undercover was doing more harm than good. Could I justify possibly screwing one person, just to help others from getting screwed? — BRIAN FAIRBANKS
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Note: No definitive ties have been established between Midtown Promotions and DS-MAX/Innovage.