Deception, or Modern Business

Some time ago, by either an act of the Maryland State Legislature or a change in the Code of Maryland Regulations (COMAR) (or perhaps a combination of both), utility consumers in Maryland were provided with an opportunity to buy energy from suppliers other than the Baltimore Gas & Electric Company (BG&E).  I don’t really understand how this works and I’m not particularly interested — this fact is the preface for the incidents I want to write about.

As more and more of these alternate energy supply companies were certified by the Maryland Public Service Commission, more and more young people were canvassing my neighborhood trying to persuade customers to purchase energy from their company rather than from BG&E.  However, not every consumer may have realized that these people were not representing BG&E.  There was a very similar script used by canvassers from the various companies working my neighborhood.

Typically, a well dressed young man with a clipboard and conspicuous badge would knock on the door.

Young man:  Good morning.  I’m from the power company and we want to make sure that you’re not paying too much for your electricity.

Me:  (noting that the badge does not say BG&E) What power company?

YM: We’re making sure that you’re getting the best rates for your electricity.  Can you please find your latest utility bill and bring it to me so I can go over it with you.

Me: No.  Goodbye.

Typically, the young person would persist until I stepped back inside and shut the door.

Now, I suspect that looking at the bill would confirm that I was buying my power from BG&E and not getting the best possible rate.  Naturally, I want to get the best price possible for utilities (and everything else) but I wasn’t interested in pursuing the conversation because I found the approach deceptive.  And, at least 3 different energy providers used the same approach.

I thought about this the other day when another incident occurred.  I was sitting on my front porch reading and enjoying the nice spring afternoon.  Someone walking down the street greeted me.  Looking up from my book I smiled and waved at the well dressed young man on the sidewalk.  Curiously, he said “Would you vote for me?”  I said “Maybe.  Who are you?”  He politely asked if he could come onto the porch and I invited him up.  He told me his name and that he was in a program to help him gain experience and enable him to get a job.  He told me that he had grown up in Georgia, that he had lost his older brothers to criminal violence and that he had gotten in trouble as well.  So, now he was involved with this program to help him get a leg up and succeed.

At this point I told him that I had been out of work for quite a long time and that if money was involved, I couldn’t help him.  He handed me this small portfolio with the name of the program, his name and he pointed to a bolded line near the bottom that said “We are not seeking donations.”

I said “OK, since I’m not able to contribute, I just didn’t want to waste your time.”

He turned the page of the portfolio and showed me a list of names which he said were neighbors that he had already visited who had helped him (I didn’t recognize any of the names).  Next to the names were columns with various numbers in them.  He told me that they were ratings.  On the next page, there was a rubric explaining the ratings.  I could rate him for how well he presented himself, how well dressed he was, friendliness, etc.

He then turned a page again and there was a list of magazines for which I could buy subscriptions.  He said:  “I know that a lot of people don’t read magazines anymore, they read things online.  But, you can purchase the subscription and donate it to the program and they’ll make the reading material available to young people in underprivileged neighborhoods.”

He was selling magazine subscriptions.  And, if I didn’t want the magazine(s) I could subscribe anyway and not be bothered by receiving them.

I reminded him that I was not in a position to give him any money.  He was disappointed but pleasant.  I said that I’d be happy to rate him in terms of his presentation, friendliness etc.  “It doesn’t help if you don’t buy a subscription.”  I wished him luck and he left.

This really bothered me.  I had no reason to doubt his sincerity.  After all, there are much easier hustles that don’t require walking around in a suit on a warm afternoon.  What bothered me is the suspicion that the “program” was scamming him.

The approach, like that of the “power company” guys, was scripted.  As soon as I expressed unwillingness to part with any money, he had a quick and unambiguous answer: “Not seeking donations.”  The conversation was peppered with topics like “work ethic” and “values”.  He seemed to be a nice young man and I wanted to help him.  But, as with the “power company” guys, I found the approach deceptive.

I suspect that the “program” is making promises about what it can do for the young man while getting him to do door to door selling for as little compensation as possible.  The “program” even acknowledges that what it is selling is something that few people want but it has a sales force to persuade one to purchase it anyway.  I’m at least as cynical as the next guy so I assume that the “program” is scamming the young man.

But here’s the thing:  even if the “program” is legitimate and it aims to help people that have been in trouble learn to comport themselves and conduct business;  even if the purchased subscriptions that the buyers don’t want are actually donated to people in underprivileged areas; even if everything is on the up and up, there’s a problem.

They’re teaching young people that deception and misdirection are the skills one should master to succeed at life.  As a cynic, I recognize that that these are valuable, if morally dubious, skills.  But, even in a corrupt capitalist society, deception and misdirection should be survival skills — not the playbook itself.


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