Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Charity telemarketers are why Americans are abandoning their landlines

I killed it.

Yes, I confess. It’s dead. Deader than a doornail.

My landline is gone, and anyone who calls my former landline number now gets air. Dead air.

Want to talk to me? Call me on my cellphone.

Don’t blame Verizon and don’t blame Apple and don’t blame AT&T Mobility. Blame Associated Community Services.

If you’ve never heard of them, don’t worry. Most of the people who work for the company will claim that they’ve never heard of it, either, even while they sit up there in its building in Southfield, Mich., and listen to 10 lines ringing at once for one to pick up, then dump the other nine to pitch someone – usually in Florida – on the need to give to the police, or women with breast cancer, or children with cancer who lost all their hair, or people with bad kidneys, or veterans who need help, or, or, or, or.

In a recent article in the Tampa Bay Times, one former telemarketer for Associated Community Services, also known as ACS, admitted that some numbers in Florida might get multiple calls in a day from different people claiming to represent several different charities, all on the hunt for money for a cause. They know that there are a lot of senior citizens in Florida, and maybe their memory isn’t that good. But the lady who gave 10 times in one day? That’s an aberration.

That’s also B.S. They knew what they were doing, and they did it anyway. In the charity business, right and wrong are just a bunch of words.

So if Erline calls you to tell you that she’s with the Breast Cancer Society and you listen carefully, you can hear people in the background pitching, pitching, pitching. You may curse out Erline and hang up on her, and then 15 minutes later Hal from the Florida Association of State Troopers calls to tell you that the Florida Highway Patrol blew its budget again and needs more money. You might ask, why don’t they go to the Legislature? In Florida, sheriffs and other law enforcement and public safety can pretty much demand a blank check and they’ll get it.

Then Harvey will call, claiming to be with your local sheriff’s office, and in need of money to fight prescription drug abuse.

Well, actually, it’s for the union that represents state troopers or sheriff’s deputies. Well, actually, most of it’s for the fundraiser who raises the money for the state troopers or sheriff’s deputies. Their unions might get enough for a new coffee machine in headquarters, if you give generously enough.

The telemarketers won’t tell you that, of course, because they’re under strict instructions not to tell you anything except that the charity whose script they are reading needs money yesterday.

If you give, you’re on their “sucker list” and soon you’ll be getting multiple calls a day from seemingly different charities, all saying they need your “help” (read: money) to do their work.

In a newspaper article recently, one story told was of a telemarketer who reduced an elderly woman to tears with her story of how little Herbert, who had cancer and lost all his hair from chemotherapy and was being bullied for being bald in sixth grade, wasn’t going to get the wig he needed because she had already given five times that day and wouldn’t give a sixth time.

“He’s going to be bald because of you,” ACS telemarketer told the woman, who was crying by now. “And everyone will make fun of him.”

The poor lady couldn’t take it any more and gave more money. Whether Herbert got his wig is not known, of course, but I bet the head of the charity got a few bucks toward that new Bimmer he had his eyes on.

I can hear you saying, “Vinny, you’re so mean. Those telemarketers are just ordinary, struggling Americans just trying to earn a living. Be glad you’re not reduced to that.”

I do feel bad for them having to do that, but if your community doesn’t have jobs, the thing to do is move, not stay there. I mean, if they were all dealing heroin would we say it’s OK because they’re working hard? Of course not.

Before I’d do any such thing, believe me I’d move into a homeless shelter. I have standards and values, and stealing from others or taking money by subterfuge is not a correct way to make a living.

It’s the same with telemarketing. It’s annoying, intrusive and creates anger and dislike toward charities. For this reason, charities need to stop using professional fundraisers who use such tactics.

The thing is that there are so many charities out there, all chasing the same nickel, that it’s hard to differentiate yourself. In Lakeland, where I work for the newspaper, there are something like 20 to 30 new veterans charities. They’re easy to set up and all it takes is a couple of events and a newspaper article, and you’re on your way. Still, people get confused, especially when every charity claims that the government is doing nothing for veterans, and we civilians are ungrateful if we don’t give until it hurts.

ACS does fundraising for veterans charities, and was a major fundraiser for the notorious “Navy Veterans” charity that took in hundreds of millions of dollars, but hardly gave a dime to needy veterans. In fact, no one knows where all the money went.

One thing that is well-known, thanks to the Tampa Bay Times’ deep investigative report, is that ACS used hard-sell techniques such as multiple calls per day and even multiple demands for money each day on gullible people who gave and gave and gave.

Even after the stories came out, the money flowed in and ACS took its cut right off the top, then claimed it was just the middleman and wasn’t passing judgment on how the charity spent its money. Nice business if you can get into it, right?

I often got calls for the people who had my landline phone number before me, and it seemed like they were on every sucker list for every charity for which ACS raises money. After months of getting calls, I started claiming to be them, and heard pitches for the Shriners (I’m just down the road in Sarasota, the guy claimed), the local sheriff’s office, the highway patrol, breast cancer, Alzheimer’s, kidneys, and so on. I think just about every body part has a charity that ACS does fundraising for.

My favorite veterans call was for the “American Veterans Society.” The guy was screaming into the line (name made up): “I’M MARINE STAFF SERGEANT HAL WILKINS, AND I’M CALLING TODAY TO RAISE MONEY TO HELP THE DISABLED VETERANS.”

I began asking questions, and ended with, “I bet you’re not even a real Marine.” (A real Marine would not use his rank and status to raise money for a charity.)

One day, I received a call for breast cancer, and 10 minutes later got a call for kidneys, and a few minutes after that, got a call for children’s leukemia. I told the woman it was the third call from ACS in 15 minutes, and she said, “What’s ACS?” and then “Uh-oh” when I told her I heard the same background voices on each call.

The cost for the landline phone was becoming a burden, and I also cut it out because I want more money in my pocket, but having my sleep interrupted by these annoying telemarketing calls was reason enough to finally shut it all down. I’ll miss using the phones, but my cellphone is perfectly adequate for my needs.

And the silver lining is that ACS has gone bankrupt. (See this story:  and this one.)

In the meantime, let’s all hope that telemarketers never get access to cellphones. I know that if charities ever got a shot at the wireless arena, we might just have to give up on telephones altogether and go back to carrier pigeons. But then I bet the charity telemarketers will start intercepting pigeons for their pitches, too.


June 30, 2014 - Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. Mr. Safuto – We had a chance to review your recent blog post in regards to telemarketing and ACS specifically. We appreciate your concerns and interest in professional fundraising and we would like to address some of the assertions in your blog post and offer additional perspective.

    Our organization provides non-profits with the resources and experience they lack to raise tangible donations to address their respective causes. Fundraising is expensive. We are efficient, effective and operate well within, if not under, the overall non-profit expense to profit norm.

    ACS does not call persons “multiple times a day for different charity clients” as a standard practice. We utilize a predictive dialer to place calls to phone numbers, not specific people. This dialer is populated with lists of previous and potential donor phone numbers for different charity campaigns. The predictive dialer may call a telephone number on a given day more than once, if the initial call has not been answered. For instance, a call may be placed at 10:00 a.m. and not be answered by the resident. The number may then be called in the evening in an effort to reach the resident.

    ACS obtains lists of persons across the United States who have active land line telephone numbers. ACS calls to solicit financial support for its charity clients and to increase public awareness of their name and mission. Persons who have demonstrated a willingness to contribute to a client charity are solicited again, which is standard fundraising practice. Over time, it is possible that individual donors will elect to support more than one charity for which ACS solicits. In this manner, those donor’s phone numbers will be present in more than one charity calling list. Generally speaking, ACS will not attempt to solicit donors more than three times a year for any given charity. By chance, if the stars aligned properly, it is possible that a potential donor phone number could be called for several charities in one day. But this would be an unusual incident, because campaign phone numbers are dialed randomly and even then would only impact a single day of calling to that household. This is not an ongoing pattern of solicitation.

    For clarification, ACS CANNOT engage in solicitation calling based on age or any other demographic factor. Our dialer database simply does not contain any information about a potential donor’s age. If a person was actively donating to a dozen of our charity clients, those relationships would have been cultivated and evolved over a period much greater than 12 months – likely years – and couldn’t exist without a person’s ongoing support or involvement.

    We hope this information is valuable in providing insight into our business practices. ACS is proud of our history and our work providing non-profits with the resources and experience they lack to raise tangible donations to address their respective missions. We take our responsibility to charitable donors and the charities we work with very seriously.

    Thank you,
    ACS Team

    Comment by Kim Eberhardt, on behalf of ACS | July 2, 2014 | Reply

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