DAY ONE. I'VE BEEN ON THE phone for two hours trying to sell vacation packages. No one is buying -- from me. Others in the boiler room are having better luck. Each time a sale is made, the floor supervisor rings a bell, and we're all supposed to applaud.

Even though I'm here undercover and really shouldn't give a damn, it bugs me that the college kid who sat through the same two hours of telemarketing training with me yesterday "rang the bell" in his first 15 minutes. I haven't even come close.

Now the woman on the phone in Delaware is telling me she's probably not interested in four days and three nights at Massanutten Resort in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley, even though her three young daughters would like it. She has cervical cancer, she says. It started a year ago with bleeding between periods, and then, the very day she'd gone to the doctor for tests but before the tests came back, she almost bled to death in the shower.

She's telling all this to me, a telemarketer who called to lure her to a resort so a company could pitch condominium time-shares. She doesn't care. She's telling me how, after chemo and radiation to shrink a tumor the size of an orange and after the surgery to remove it, the doctor told her they think they got it all and she should go "party."
That's when I pounced.

And that's how I rang the bell for the first time: selling a vacation package to a woman with cervical cancer who felt it was time to enjoy life.

It wasn't always going to be so easy.

I FIND TELEMARKETERS ANNOYING. THEY call during dinner, they call me by the first name I never use, they treat me like a mark rather than a customer. If they were selling $5 bills for a quarter, I wouldn't buy.

But many people do. The Direct Marketing Association says $256 billion worth of goods were sold last year by telemarketers. Throw in telemarketing to businesses and the number swells to nearly $610 billion -- more than 1 1/2 times the gross domestic product of Mexico. The Federal Trade Commission estimates that about $40 billion of that is outright fraud.

What kind of people are telemarketers? What's their game? The best way to find out was to get a telemarketing job. I answered this newspaper ad:

Wanted: Top closers needed for our up-beat Falls Church office. If you have a clear speaking voice & are money motivated, this job is for you! We offer convenient hours, day or eve shift. Excellent pay w/commission, bonuses, benefits & paid training. Top closers earn up to $ 20/hr. Call for an immediate interview & start tomorrow.

The young woman I spoke with told me to bring my resume and to wear business attire. I rejected my favorite aloha shirt and wore a suit. I also reworked my resume to disguise the fact that I'm a journalist.

I'd be flattering the "upbeat" Falls Church office by calling it nondescript. It shares a three-story building near the Beltway with a tae-kwon-do academy, a dry cleaner, and a Latino mercado. If there had been windows, it would have looked over a U-Haul storage lot. Nothing hinted there was a telemarketing company inside. I've seen bookie joints that were easier to find.

The "call center" was filled with long tables divided into workstations by three-sided partitions. A collection of chairs looked as if they'd been bought by the pound at a salvage yard. At each station were a computer and a telephone headset.

The woman who interviewed me looked at my resume and said, "You seem over-qualified."

"I'll bet you tell all the guys that," I said.

The subject was dropped, and I was hired.

I LEARNED I'D BE WORKING FOR GREAT Eastern Resort Corporation, owner of Massanutten.

My trainer -- and the man who would be my boss -- was named Jeremy, a slender, pale guy in his mid-twenties who is also a guitarist with two alternative-rock bands. He likes the part-time hours and no weekends working for Great Eastern. Jeremy was sarcastic and worked the sales floor with the fluid grace of a Vegas pit boss. I liked him.

His first telemarketing job, while still a teenager, was calling people and telling them he was raising money for the state-trooper fund. That's what people in telemarketing-fraud enforcement call "badge fraud" or "sales by means of half truth." Some money does go to state-trooper funds. Most goes to the for-profit company making the calls.

Jeremy explained the job: $8-an-hour base pay for a shift that ran from 8:30 AM to 1:30 PM Monday through Friday. If I showed up every day of the workweek on time, that would rise to $9 an hour. Each sale I made would earn me a $20 or $25 commission, depending on which package I sold. That worked out to $400 a week, or $20,000 a year. Not bad for part-time indoor work.

Jeremy gave me and two other trainees the details of what we were selling: four weekdays and three nights for $129, which included four ski-lift tickets or four rounds of golf. If you went on the weekend, the cost went up to $179.

"We give them a good deal to get them down there," Jeremy said. "All we ask of them is 90 minutes to tell them about the timeshare. We're just trying to get them down there. That's the only reason we're here."

COMPANIES LIKE GREAT EASTERN BUY lists of phone numbers of people with certain shared characteristics: location, income, credit cards. Each phone list goes into a computer that starts autodialing.

If it's your number and you pick up, the call is directed to someone like me, sitting at a computer that now displays your name, perhaps your spouse's name, and your address. That's all I knew about customers.

The idea is to keep salespeople busy. It's not efficient for me to dial, listen to a ring, and perhaps get no answer, dial again, and so on. So the computer does all that. The downside for the customer is that telltale pause between the time you answer and the time I start trying to get you to come to Massanutten. That pause is the time it takes the computer to figure out which salesperson is free. At some companies, the computer is dialing out so fast that it gets more answers than it has salespeople, so it hangs up. The next time you answer the phone and your caller ID says "unknown caller" and there's no one there, chances are it's a telemarketer.

Great Eastern didn't have its dialer set very fast. Sometimes I'd have to wait two minutes for a call -- an eternity if you hear your colleagues making pitches to customers.

Jeremy said that once you get someone on the phone, the trick is to get them talking. Establish rapport. The computer on my desk kept track of how long I talked to each customer, and it kept a running average. Two minutes was considered good.

"Earn conversation a minute at a time," Jeremy said.

It turns out I was good at that.

GIDDY AFTER MY FIRST SALE and feeling heat from the college kid who had scored a second sale, I was building rapport by phone with another woman in Delaware. She liked to ski. But she had a five-year-old and a six-week-old.

"There's childcare," I said, making a mental note to make sure Massanutten has childcare. (It does.)

"I'm on a mission to pay off our credit cards," she said.

And then she told me way more than she should ever tell a stranger on the phone about how far in debt she and her husband were. If I were a better person, I would have thanked her and hung up, but the good-looking woman next to me had just made a sale and I wanted to impress her.

I don't remember all of what I said to the woman with two small children and credit-card debt well into five figures. I do recall saying, "What's another $129 when you deserve a vacation?"

She bought, and I rang the bell. The good-looking woman seemed impressed.

Moments before that first shift ended, I made a third sale. I watched with pride as Jeremy wrote another sale next to my name on the white board, which we all watched to see how we stacked up. No one, not even the college kid, had more that day.

The good-looking woman said, "Beginner's luck."

IF THERE WAS ANYTHING UPBEAT ABOUT that office, it was my coworkers. Most days there were about 14 of them: college kids on summer break, middle-aged people working a second job, people who'd lost much better jobs and were using this one to tide them over.

At another telemarketing company I'd considered working for, the Smith Company, the trainer had told us that her workforce could be divided into three roughly equal groups: those who had day jobs and worked evening telemarketing, those who did telemarketing as their primary job, and a final group who used telemarketing to support their passions -- acting, painting, writing.

Take the good-looking woman in my office. Her name was Gail, and unlike the rest of us, who often wore jeans and T-shirts, she always dressed for success: hair done, makeup on, nails polished. Until a few weeks earlier, Gail had been assistant general manager at a Hilton hotel. The slowdown in the tech economy had hit the hospitality industry, Gail explained, and she'd been downsized.

"I'm going through a transition for the moment," she told me later. "This place was hiring immediately."

The college kid, Mike, had just completed his first year in computer science at the University of Virginia. He got the job because his girlfriend had already worked there a week. Her first take-home was $222, not bad for a part-time summer job.

As fresh-faced as Mike was, he got into the cynicism as fast as I did.
"I'm willing to stretch the truth," he said. "I tell them the promotion is ending. I tell them it ends today."

The promotion wasn't ending.

WHICH RAISES THE QUESTION OF what's fair and not fair -- what's legal and what's not.

I visited Eileen Harrington, associate director for marketing practices at the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection, and ran by her the details of what we did at Great Eastern. She wrinkled her nose at our calling ourselves the Virginia Travel Bureau -- the standard way we introduced ourselves -- but said we were within the law.

Travel packages are an area rife with fraud, Harrington said. "The most common and most egregious complaint would be that the consumer agreed to pay their money and didn't get what they paid for."

A typical example is a case the FTC settled in June against an operation that told customers they could get free airline tickets to Hawaii if they bought a travel package for $299 a person. It turned out that on top of the front-end fees of $598 for two people were a back-end "port and services charge" of $398 and $78 for undisclosed "processing fees." And even though consumers were told there were no restrictions on the "free" airline tickets, that claim, too, was false. The companies and the people who ran them will have to pay about $300,000 in redress.

The action was brought under terms of the Telemarketing and Consumer Fraud and Abuse Prevention Act. The six-year-old law requires telemarketers calling on behalf of for-profit companies to tell consumers who they are and what they're selling; prohibits misrepresentations; limits the hours that telemarketers may call to between 8 AM and 9 PM; and prohibits, for a period of ten years, calls to a consumer who has asked not to be called again.

EIGHTEEN STATES HAVE ENACTED LAWS that allow consumers to put their name on a blanket list prohibiting any telemarketer from calling. Virginia, Maryland, and the District are not among them. The Direct Marketing Association maintains a national "do not call" list that its 5,000 members promise to honor. Not surprisingly, many in the telemarketing business aren't wild about such lists.

Matt Mattingley is government-affairs director for the American Teleservices Association, which represents 2,700 telemarketers. He's critical of those state laws because they exempt politicians, nonprofit groups, and businesses with prior relationships to the person called. So even in those states, you're still going to hear from magazines you subscribe to, the state-trooper fund you never gave to, and fundraising politicians you never plan to vote for.

Congress is considering a law that would make it illegal for telemarketers to intentionally block their names from your caller-ID box. In general, Mattingley's group favors such a law.

"Our view has always been that a legitimate, honest business would not object to that," he says. "Good telemarketers only want to talk to people who want to talk to them."

Nevertheless, Mattingley was happy to see the bill die in the Senate last year because it contained some compliance requirements he thought were unrealistic. For example, many calls from businesses with multiple phone lines come across on caller-ID boxes as "unknown caller," whether the company has intentionally blocked the number or not. No one knows the technical solution to that.

If people had known I was a telemarketer, would they have answered the phone? Their caller ID would have shown "Virginia Travel Bureau," which sounds like a state travel office. I suspect they would have answered.

HERE'S SOMETHING I LEARNED AS A telemarketer: People love to talk on the phone. They'll talk to anyone. I averaged 60 to 80 phones calls per shift, and on no day did more than three people simply tell me to go to hell and hang up -- which is close to my typical response to telemarketers. Instead they talked and talked, often about the most personal things.

There was the elderly woman who couldn't get away because she takes care of her widowed son -- but who brightened when I told her that as a bonus we'd give her four days and three nights in Las Vegas. She likes Vegas a lot.

"What games do you like?" I asked.

"I like them all, honey," she said.

There was the guy who told me all about how his wife of 21 years left him and his two daughters for another guy.

I was so astounded listening to these stories that sometimes I'd forget to pitch the vacation.

It turned out my first day was beginner's luck. My second day, I sold one. Now, halfway through my third day, I hadn't sold any. Jeremy, who had the ability to listen in on a phone he carried with him, scolded me that while I was good at building rapport, I wasn't taking full advantage of it.

"Once you have that rapport, you can say things to them you couldn't get away with otherwise," he said.

I wasn't a good closer.

Neither was a woman sitting behind me. She hadn't sold anything all week. Jeremy told her to log off and come talk to him. It was the last we saw of her.


MY FOURTH AND LAST DAY ON THE JOB, an hour before the end of my shift, the computer has connected me to 68 people. My average talk time is a solid 2 1/2 minutes. And my name still isn't on the board. I feel inadequate. Gail and Mike are selling like crazy. I'm sure Jeremy is going to tell me to log off and make me disappear.

But I'm a reporter. I don't need this job to pay bills. Maybe I should be proud that I failed as a telemarketer. Every time I think that, though, I remember a woman who went through training with me. She already worked for Great Eastern on the evening shift, which doesn't pay as well as daytime. She was trying to move to days because she couldn't find someone at night to care for her six-year-old, who suffers from seizures. When Jeremy had us read aloud from the script, she struggled. She read over periods and stopped at the end of each typed line.

"I do better when I just talk," she said.

I'm going to remember that woman when I get a telemarketing call. I'm still not going to buy anything, and I'm certainly not going to tell the caller my life story. But I'm going to be polite. A computer may have dialed my number, but it's still a human on the other end.