Telemarketing Hotbed: Santa Barbara-Goleta has long been a fertile ground for telemarketing outfits, some so blatantly illegal that the feds cracked down. Over the years there’s practically been enough going on to justify the Federal Trade Commission setting up a branch office here.

All too often, guys running these outfits just resumed business with a new scam and a new name. Then the FTC and the Better Business Bureau started fielding a fresh round of complaints about the new venture.

Usually those complaints come from just about anywhere in the U.S. but Santa Barbara. The telemucketers don’t want to upset the locals, who would find it too easy to come knocking at their doors.

However, this is where they recruit the hundreds of ethically challenged workers needed to run the phone banks and double-talk the public responding to print and TV come-ons. Many of the phone slaves are young college-age men and women; others are sly veterans of the rackets. I’ve talked to both kinds over the years of writing about the scams that operate just above the law or far under. The kids tend to close their eyes to the hoodwinking they’re involved in and blame the public for being too easily duped.

The old-timers know the ropes, know the scams but find it easy money.

One variety is the phony charity. You make up a cause that sounds a lot like a real national outfit raising money for cancer research, police, firefighters, or wounded veterans.

Then you buy a sucker list and start cold-calling. Elderly people are the traditional victims because they were raised in a more trusting era and their hearts are bursting with sympathy for the needy.

The phone phonies hook a victim and offer to send someone right over to collect the check. No need to let the victim think it over and decide not to mail the check.

Using the watchdog site Charity Navigator, I just read about a California outfit that raised $4 million supposedly to help burn victims. But its “expenses” were so high that it gave nothing (zero) to those it claimed to be helping. Yet its president makes a $117,000 salary. Sadly, some worthy organizations lend their names to telemarketers who turn over perhaps five percent of the take and keep the rest.

Out in Goleta, an outfit called Bargain Network has proved to be anything but a bargain for the 400-plus people who registered complaints with the Better Business Bureau in the past 36 months. Although it is not accused of illegal acts, BN has racked up an “F” rating with the BBB. A typical complaint is that the consumer has been hit with unauthorized charges and is having a hard time getting them reversed. Other dissatisfied customers have discovered that the cars or homes advertised were nonexistent, or that the listings were free elsewhere.

According to the BBB, the consumer accusations include false advertising, unsolicited credit card charges, difficulty cancelling services, and general disappointment with the product.

A typical narrative: “Contacted Bargain Network for a trial offer of $1 and that was it. I was never informed of any other fees and never received any literature in the mail informing me about anything. Bargain Network charged my checking account $39.80 without my consent and I incurred $70 worth overdraft fees because of their actions. I called and spoke with one of their reps and I was told repeatedly that I signed up for something that I know I did not. The representative . . . refused to reimburse my charges; he was extremely rude and would not let me speak to anyone else. I asked for his full name and he would only give me his first name. Because of Bargain Network’s actions I have been inconvenienced tremendously and I am not able to use my checking account for anything because my account has been put in disarray. The most the representative said he could do for me is give me $30 back and not the full $39.80 plus overdraft fees I incurred and proceeded to tell me that I needed to call my bank myself because I’m responsible for the fees. I would not have incurred these fees and been so inconvenienced if it wasn’t for Bargain Network!”

Another person who answered an ad claimed that $400 was wrongly billed to his credit card and he was having a hard time getting his money back.

Bargain Network has announced that it is in the process of closing, throwing its 300-plus employees, mostly UCSB and Santa Barbara City College students, out of work. But they may be able to sign on with other telemarketing outfits that operate along Hollister Avenue doing the same kind of dubious “work.”

Reese in Ojai: Well, they all can’t move to Santa Barbara, can they? Reese Witherspoon, according to reports, has bought the six-plus-acre hideaway Libby Ranch in the Ojai area. List price: $6.9 mil.

Citizen McCaw: The locally produced documentary about the Santa Barbara News-Press meltdown will be screened at the Marjorie Luke Theater, Saturday, April 5, at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.

Citizen at UC Berkeley: It will also be shown for the first time in Northern California, on April 17 at 6:30 p.m. at the University of California Graduate School of Journalism, Sibley Auditorium, UC Berkeley.

Tickets are $50, with proceeds going to the Lawyers Alliance for Free Speech Rights, the legal defense fund for journalists fired from the News-Press. Make reservations online at There’ll be a 5 p.m. reception, and the screening will be followed by a panel discussion on the state of journalism. On the panel will be Jerry Roberts, former News-Press editor; Citizen McCaw documentary director Sam Tyler; and San Francisco Chronicle editorial page editor John Diaz. Cynthia Gorney, UC journalism school professor, will moderate.


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