I’ve done some thankless jobs. I cleaned pee off the floor of my dance studio. I spent summers vacuuming sand at a beachside hotel. In college, I made calls to alumni asking for donations. I’ve been yelled at by city councilors. I’ve slung French fries until the heat lamps gave me raw, salty sunburns.
But only one job led to me getting cursed at, called a criminal, threatened to have police called on me, and even spat at. All in one day.
In 2012, I worked spent one day working — momentarily sort of — as a door-to-door water heater scammer.
For those unfamiliar: door-to-door scammers come in all shapes and sizes. In some cases, they’re petty thieves trying to get into people’s homes. In others, they’re selling actual goods through deceptive means or with a pyramid scheme sales structure. The legal status of them varies; last year Ontario made the door-to-door sale of water heaters and other equipment illegal, but there are technicalities around that.
I didn’t realize when I went to the office that day that I’d be knocking on doors. In fact, I wasn’t even sure what I’d be selling. But in those hours, I learned what it was like on the other side of those horrifying pitches. And I learned how people get involved.
I graduated with no job, an English degree, and dreams of being a journalist. But with only an unpaid writing internship and a low-paying click-farm job to my name, I cast the net wider. I tried to spin my journalism aptitude into a passable junior marketing skillset, but yielded nothing. Finally, I started looking at a field I considered very generic: sales.
These days, I feel differently. I’ve worked closely with my colleagues in sales and know that I could never do it — it takes confidence, organization, and an unwavering ability to manage relationships. But four years of undergrad spent mainlining reruns of The Office truly made me believe that if unambitious Jim and grouchy Stanley could get by in a sales job, so could I.
I hoped I could get something to stay afloat while I applied for something better in my field. So I started combing new sections of job boards I’d been lurking. Almost immediately, I made mistakes.
1. I didn’t know what a quality ad looked like.
When I was looking for writing gigs, it made sense that on top of regular sites (like Indeed and Monster), I was finding gigs editing manuscripts and transcribing interviews on Craigslist and Canada’s Kijiji. They also had sections for sales jobs, so I foolishly looked there.
Don’t do that. Seriously. Places that want to be tactical about hires don’t post on generic classified sites. Some not-so-squeaky-clean employers will use them, however, because you can leave a lot of information — location, contact info — out.
Even though the job didn’t have to work hard to fool me, it did employ some deceptive tactics. The name and logo even made it look like it was provincially owned, or at least provincially regulated. But the posting offered few details on what we were selling beyond “energy products.” Not once did it mention sales were door-to-door.
2. The neighborhood was not corporate.
I’ve lived in Toronto six years and know it well. But back then, I lived in the suburbs and thought that as long as an address was “downtown,” it was a sophisticated job. So when I was called for an interview and saw this was downtown on Yonge Street, I figured it would be nestled in with other corporate offices.
If I’d actually researched the neighborhood, I’d have found this office was on a significantly less sophisticated stretch of Yonge — a few doors down from a strip club and above a head shop. A lot of operations run out of unconventional places, but years in the corporate world have taught me that places bringing in as much revenue as this place claimed were either in the southern part of downtown, or in the suburbs with bigger offices and better parking. The office itself was dark and looked freshly moved into, and no one seemed certain what was going on.
3. On orientation day, I still didn’t have a clear idea of what I was doing.
I knew they sold “energy products,” and from their fairly legit-looking website, I gathered that meant water heaters, air filters, etc. But that wasn’t discussed in the interview; I had to find that out on my own. Not once during did the interviewer ask what I knew about the company, which I’ve learned since is common, which I’ve been asked in almost every job interview since then.
On test day, which was more of an orientation,During the second stage of the interview process – which was presented as a test day but felt more like an orientation, even though we hadn’t technically been offered jobs yet – they finally explained the sales process: we were there to help people get new water heaters to replace their (allegedly) outdated ones. We would lease the heaters and put customers on a contract, which I later realized is one of the most damaging things about these schemes.
4. Orientation focused on how great the company culture was, not on what they did.
For every sentence we heard about what to do, there were three more about the company parties, intramural leagues, and office culture — which, as far as we could see, was a dark windowless office with few desks and workspaces. Employees were brought in to showcase commission checks. One even had a $4,000 check. I was already uncomfortable, but when I saw the check, I saw a chunk of my debt wiped out. I saw a deposit on an apartment.
After 30 minutes, we were divvied up into groups and given windbreakers. Only then did we learn we were going out in vans to accompany employees on their sales “calls.” Door to door. Driving to the suburbs we met our supervisors, whose commissions was based on our sales. I suspect most of us figured out right then what that meant: pyramid scheme.
5. We were targeted for the same reason.
I deduced what we all had in common: desperation. Some of us were recent grads. Half of us were new Canadians. Two were dropouts. All of us really needed money. At first, I wondered what about me seemed desperate. I realized my “I’ll do anything you ask!” attitude, coupled with the fact that I asked no critical questions and seemed to fall for the scheme right there made me a target. Some of us became progressively sadder throughout the ride, but I think most of us, including me, clung to the hope that a 5% commission (most sales ran from $1,200 to $2,400, so if we only had one successful call a day, it could still mean $100) would help provide a financial cushion.
6. They taught us manipulative “sales” techniques.
The rep I shadowed was a friendly Estonian guy who had come to Canada pursuing a tech career. Instead he’d ended up here, telling me sincerely, “Sales are my life.” On the first few calls, he seemed confident, and took rejection well. The first time he made it through his initial pitch, he asked the homeowner, “Do you want my shoes on or off?” as he stepped in uninvited. After we left, he nudged me and said that was a technique to use rather than asking them if you can come in — don’t give them a chance to say no.
“Makes sense,” I muttered. But inside, I was screaming, “Get me away from this place!” I looked around for bus stops to see if I could possibly find my way back to Toronto. But I didn’t even have change on me. What could I do? Yell at some bus driver, “I’m in a quasi-hostage situation with water heater scammers”?
As the day went on, I learned other “techniques,” such as emphasizing words like “expired” and “discontinued” when referring to people’s water heaters to create a sense of danger. When I questioned why we were going door-to-door in affluent neighborhoods on weekdays, he said, “Our primary customers are seniors. A lot of them don’t know about this stuff.” Which is true — these scammers target seniors because they’re easier to scare.
7. I was “hired” without signing anything.
After a cringeworthy day — the guy only signed two people, and we were spat on by one understandably angry woman — we headed back. I figured they’d follow up and call me later, so I tried to bolt right from the van, but the guy stopped me to wait for his boss’ feedback on the notes he’d sent. Within a few minutes, he told me I was hired. It was hard to feel happy, but I did briefly think of doing it for a few weeks. I asked where to go to sign a contract and he said to come back tomorrow and we’d get it done during our shift.
That was when I finally broke. I was hired with no questions asked. No signature, no offer letter, no discussion about compensation. This was too sketchy.
It was hard not to laugh as he told me my hours: 7:00 AM to 5:00 PM., Monday to Saturday. I nodded, said I’d see him tomorrow, and walked away. I walked the whole three kilometers to Union Station because I was just so tense. Eight hours stuck with a stranger in an unknown suburb doing the work of a scam artist wasn’t exactly self-care.
Yeah, I took the coward’s way out — I felt like a bit of a coward at the time, I shook his hand andshaking his hand and accepted the job with no intent to return. When he texted me the next morning saying the van was leaving, I didn’t answer, and he never followed up. That probably happened a lot there..
I certainly don’t consider it cowardly anymore. I had been emotionally exhausted, not just from this experience but from a summer full of job-related letdowns. I’d done what I could do at the time, which was to stay quiet and give myself the space to pick myself up. For what it’s worth, he never followed up. That probably happened a lot there.
I could have told him off right then, told him he was a degenerate scammer preying on innocent people. But I didn’t. It wasn’t this guy’s fault he was part of a big racket. And I didn’t think poorly of the trainees who did go back the next morning. When I cried to my parents that night, they understood, too — the people who accepted the jobs probably didn’t live rent-free with their parents.
It says a lot that for me, hitting bottom was only a single day doing a quasi-orientation for a scam-ridden work operation. What about the people whose rock bottom was accepting the job? As upsetting and embarrassing as the day was, it filled me with gratitude for the options I still had at my disposal. Yes, I made a vow to be smarter about my job applications (like looking up the companies on Glassdoor and LinkedIn and asking many more questions about business models and turnover in my interviews), but I also made a vow to understand why people take these jobs in the first place.
I looked up the rep recently. He stayed with the company two more years before eventually going back to Estonia. When I see his smiling headshot, I think back to how easily he brushed off getting called a criminal and having the cops called on us, how pleasantly he explained the grift to me. Was he naive enough to believe the lie we sold, or was he simply believing it for his own survival?
After all, how many times have I willingly believed lies for the sake of my own survival? I’ve worked inherently exploitative jobs — the only difference was they never hurt other people. But while you should still never let a door-to-door salesperson into your house, I learned from this experience that you need to put yourself in the shoes of someone so desperate that they’re willing to knock. And maybe don’t spit on them.
Bree Rody-Mantha is a full-time business journalist and part-time dance teacher based in Toronto. She covered Toronto City Hall during the Rob Ford era before transitioning to business journalism. Her areas of specialty include the influencer market, advertising, media buying, and technology. Follow her on Twitter.
Image via Unsplash