A salesman in jeans and a T-shirt knocked on our front door the other day. He said his crew had asphalt left over from the highway work going on nearby. Could they blacktop our gravel driveway? I got the impression they had to do something with the asphalt right away and that was why he could give me a “real good price”–just $1.50 a square foot.

I didn’t want to spend the money, and I didn’t want to create any more pavement to speed rainwater runoff and contribute to flooding. But the guy was persistent. He came down to a dollar a square foot. His high-pitched pleading conveyed the message that I would be taking advantage of him if I bought right then. I said no, but not decisively enough. Reluctantly he came down to 80 cents and promised a year’s guarantee.

Normally in affairs of the house I get estimates and compare–or at least measure. Instead I thought fast, trying to mentally pace off the driveway and then multiply the dimensions by 0.8. We were talking on the front porch; the driveway in question was in sight. But something about our encounter made it hard to break off and go measure it.

I still declined. He sighed and said, “70 cents.” I sighed and said yes. The next afternoon my driveway was paved, and I was out several hundred dollars.

What was really going on here? I’d been slow on the uptake and grossly ignorant of asphalt technology and pricing. I could have put him off for a day and done a little comparison shopping. But I didn’t. Why? Because I wanted something for nothing (it turns out I got a cheap price–and a cheap driveway). In sales argot, I was “moochie.”

You won’t find “moochie” in the unabridged dictionary or in economics textbooks. You will find it in Robert J. Stevenson’s The Boiler Room and Other Telephone Sales Scams. Stevenson is a sociologist by profession and a skilled telephone salesman by necessity. When his graduate-school teaching job was cut in the early 1980s, he joined the reserve army of the academic unemployed and landed a job selling chemicals over the phone. One job led to another, and over the next 12 years he gradually became what sociologists call a “participant observer.” He worked the phones, chatted with fellow workers, and kept furtive notes that became his guide to the shifty, shady shadow land on the edge of American capitalism–the boiler room.

As is painfully obvious if you stay home for an evening, unsolicited sales calls rarely come from professionals. Most telemarketing is done by people who are paid minimal amounts per hour to make calls, and they hardly have enough phone presence to read a script or sustain a conversation, let alone persuade you to buy. By contrast, “boilers”–the salesmen who work in boiler rooms–are on commission; they’re selling stuff that’s usually overpriced if it exists at all, and chances are they’ll be out of a job within a year, having been scammed by their own employer. They have to be better than your average telemarketer, not that it does most of them any good.

Boiler rooms themselves are just rooms–crammed with desks and telephones and often lined with acoustical tile and the most conventional sort of “motivational” business posters. Such a room “is said to be running ‘full burn’ when each telephone station is actively manned by a salesman,” Stevenson writes. “The coordinated production of men, telephones, scripted presentations, and noise that appears at first glance to be confusion is called ‘heat.’ Statements such as, ‘Can you feel the heat?’ and ‘We are really cooking now’ are taken to mean a desirable state of affairs, which management actively promotes.”

You can’t feel that kind of heat in the countryside. Boiler rooms appear where white-collar workers have been displaced from the usual career paths. In New York, Florida, California, and Illinois, boiler-room owners “can tap into a pool of articulate men who are conversant in the language of business culture.” Their job is to use language to create an alternate reality, because no boiler room is what it seems to be–any more than the asphalt that wound up on my driveway would have petrified in the back of someone’s truck if it went unsold. Boilers can change directions faster than any factory can retool. Ever hear of “computer-screen cleaner”? It was a boiler-room invention, trading on people’s assumption that anything to do with silicon chips had to be specialized and expensive. “Industrial glass-cleaner became one shop’s hottest item after one salesman, enamored with the world of computers and their special language, began modifying his pitch,” writes Stevenson. “Common solvents and cleaners were promoted as being ‘CRT Approved’ or given exotic nomenclature surrounding the terms laser and turbo….To meet the demand, the manager went to the supermarket, bought the largest quantity of glass-cleaner that he could stuff into his car trunk, and emptied the bottles into two-gallon industrial containers.”

Any time there’s an imperfection in the market–a surplus, a shortage, a crucial bit of public ignorance–the boiler room is there to clean up. Could the product be dangerous? The subject of public controversy? No problem–in fact, less than no problem. One salesman told Stevenson how the big Alar scare of 1989 generated a boom in pesticide sales at the boiler room where he was working: “Hell, we were selling weed-killer faster than we could order it–with all sorts of ingredients you wouldn’t want anywhere near your food. You know how we sold it? ‘GUARANTEED ALAR FREE.’ That’s true, there was no Alar in our weed-killer. We even had tests done….It was a laydown. We were actually pitchin’ avoiding lawsuits [laughs] as part of the close.”

Boilers sell whatever they can–normal auto parts liquidated at distress prices, goods of dubious quality, or superior products that have been marketed poorly and gone unsold in regular outlets. Anything in the gray area of the market and the gray area of consumer knowledge–anything sellable that can be marked up enough to support the cast of salesmen–is the right stuff.

But not everyone is a good sales prospect. Experience has taught boilers to minimize phone bills by designing sales pitches that will eliminate whole categories of dead ends. “Customers will not be pitched if they are not in the market, if they know exactly what they want and will not consider an alternative…if they are not interested in free gifts, if they communicate genuine product knowledge, and if they are only interested in conventional products.”

And, except in unusual circumstances, they will not be pitched if they are women. One boiler-room manager told Stevenson, “Women just don’t know the grift. You have to explain everything to them. They’re just too cautious. They’re too damn polite. They aren’t players. They don’t take risks. You pitch your guts out, and then they say, ‘I’ll think about it.’…There’s a whole damn network of objections. Forget it. This shop doesn’t pitch women. If you do, fine, OK, be a charmer, but you pay the damn phone bill.”

The boiler room may well be the most sexist middle-class subculture still in existence. Boilers define women as “other.” As customers, they’re seen as impossible, because they often don’t have buying authority and–worse–because they just aren’t moochie enough. As salespeople, they supposedly would create all kinds of problems.

Yet the same socially defined otherness that excludes women from the boiling scene can make them indispensable. When an owner wants to fire a salesman without creating a scene, he resorts to what one sales pro calls the “quick-cut bitch pitch.” The newly superfluous and unsuspecting employee is called into the office, where the owner’s wife and the manager are waiting. The old pro sets the scene: “The broad reads a statement that says that the employee is no longer needed by the company, and that she is sorry that this had to happen. Or something like that, I’m not sure of the exact words. Now, the manager, he is a nodder: he nods his head as the owner’s wife reads the pitch….Now, I ask you, what do you do if that happens to you? Nothing much. You pack your bags, that’s all….What can you do? You can’t argue with a lady.”

Usually the worst that happens to a boiler-room customer is that he pays more than he should have. Typical customers of “product houses” (which sell physical products rather than services) include farmers, owners of small repair shops of various kinds, and custodial people with buying authority in large organizations. Few product houses knowingly sell defective merchandise, but there’s little assurance that they won’t. If the floor cleaner doesn’t clean, if the miracle oil doesn’t lubricate, if the brake drum falls apart on I-94, how likely is that to be traced to a phone call made months or years earlier?

When a problem is traced, boiler-room pros try to “buy back the heat.” Legitimate businesses would do so by refunding or replacing the product; boilers do their best to delay, transfer blame to the customer, or convert a partial refund into a supposed discount on an additional sale. One classic move is to ask for a nonexistent “purchase-order authorization number”–without it, no refund. A customer quick enough to realize that there’s no such number and then to invent one on the spot, probably wouldn’t have been pitched–and wouldn’t have bought–in the first place.

What Stevenson calls “service houses” use boiler-room techniques to sell things that don’t exist: alleged grave plots to recent immigrants, travel certificates that can never quite be redeemed, nonexistent docking rights at nonexistent docks for nonexistent tankers carrying nonexistent oil. Boilers have even sold an end to all unwanted phone calls. “It’s a beautiful pitch!” one pro told Stevenson. “They claim to be survey brokers. They’ve got the kill codes [an imaginary program that deletes names from computer files]. They make a ton of money.” Then they make some more by listing the names on a computer and selling them to other boiler rooms. “They are called ‘snucker lists.’ It means silent sucker: people who’ve got big bucks or resources they want to hide….Some people are moochie for money, others for privacy.”

Boilers themselves are often moochie for status. Their middle-class skills rarely command middle-class respect; they don’t even command a steady job. The economics of boiler rooms are so dicey that few new hires last very long. It’s cheaper for the owner to fire almost everyone on the sales floor, redistribute their good accounts to the few remaining pros, and hire a bunch of newbies to be winnowed and ultimately disposed of in like fashion. A real business would invest in its sales force, educate them beyond the minimum, encourage cooperation, reward loyalty. But a boiler room has nothing to invest. In the long run it can’t go on–but it’s not intended to. It exists to make money in the short run, often less than a year.

Obviously, you don’t study such places by knocking on the front door and announcing yourself as a sociologist. Stevenson is proud of his participant observation and contemptuous of the grant-funded pablum he sees passing for sociology or criminology. “It is a curious ‘research universe’ indeed where there are typically no pushers above the street level and none who live in foreign lands…no comments from the real estate industry in southern climes….Few criminologists have met a hooker in other than police settings or medical facilities.” In fact, Stevenson sometimes finds his second, unplanned “career” more palatable than academia. “It can sometimes be relatively easier to ‘work the phones’ in an environment that I fully expect to be predatory than to teach classes in the company of exploited adjuncts and witness the collective indifference of colleagues [full-time professors] who benefit from their oppression and should be expected to know better.”

Boiler rooms contain scams within scams. Salesmen may double bill, double ship, or pad orders to make extra money from an unsuspecting customer. Boilers who anticipate being fired or quitting may cheat management by “writing wood” –creating fictitious orders to get a big commission on their last paycheck. Owners create the appearance of a stable business, only to fire salesmen without notice, sometimes docking their pay based on the false claim that one of their accounts had returned merchandise.

And the owners? Just as journalists are often credulous and salespeople easy to sell to, con men can be conned. “Slick listers,” for instance, have been known to sell boiler-room owners nonexistent sales leads. First the slick lister offers 25 names and numbers free. Supposedly they’re a sample from a larger list of sales leads; in reality they’re names the slick lister bought from a list broker for perhaps $80. The sample checks out, and the boiler-room owner sends a check for the rest of the alleged list–say, $1,125 for “five thousand red hots.” The slick lister manages to stall delivery until the check clears, and then vanishes.

“Even phone rooms are moochie, you’d think they would know better,” one informant gleefully explained to Stevenson. “But they don’t….They get burned. They can’t complain. There is no heat. Plus, the owner will, of course, curse himself for being taken. But this is not something that he won’t understand.”

The Boiler Room and Other Telephone Sales Scams by Robert J. Stevenson, University of Illinois Press, $29.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Slug Signorino.