Bangkok's Boiler Rooms - an Insider's View
by John Cooke
A recent article in the Bangkok Post that mentioned Boiler Rooms made me think back to the time I worked in one of these notorious places in Bangkok.
What is a Boiler Room? It is an office, sometimes temporary and quite basic, where telemarketers and sales people call potential customers to get them interested in stock investments, which, unknowingly to the customers, are bogus. The most common way to promote these investments is through an Initial Public Offering (IPO). This is a chance for customers to get in on the ground floor of a company going public before its stocks are formally offered in the marketplace. They even made a Hollywood movie about Boiler Rooms. Set in New York, it starred Oscar winner, Ben Affleck.
I learned, after I got involved in working for one, that Boiler Rooms had been running in Bangkok for over 10 years. There were about thirty of these places based in the city as of early 2001. They advertised regularly in the Bangkok Post for English speaking marketing and sales staff. I found out that they chose Bangkok because international calls and other overheads were cheap in Thailand. Also, that the corruption in the country made it easy to both set up and run a Boiler Room in Bangkok, especially. They were called Boiler Rooms because of the small, cramped offices they were usually run in â€“ the heat was on, to make money, illegally.
How did I get involved in a Boiler Room? It was Bangkok in early 2001. I was unemployed, living with my Thai wife. I had started to build a small house in her village. The house was costing me more and more money. My savings were going down, fast. I needed a job, but quick. The Bangkok Post's classified section revealed an ad that looked promising: â€œEnglish speaking telemarketers wanted.â€ A mobile phone number and a name, George, was all that was provided. I called, and after a short conversation with him, arranged for an interview.
The interview day arrived. I went dressed smart, shirt, tie and suit trousers. I took my CV and passport along, also. The offices were only a short walk from my room in downtown Bangkok. On arrival, I spoke to a Thai receptionist. She took me through a door into a large room which was divided into two sections, with some smaller offices down one side. The receptionist took me to George's small, cramped office. George, a tall blond German guy in his late 30s, was not his real name, I found out later.
The interview was strange. Not once during the 20 minutes or so it took did George look at me. He was always checking his computer, or reading his papers and notes, but he avoided any eye contact. I asked him whether I could take some information home about the company, International Asset Management (IAM), or the product it was currently promoting - Biometrics, the electronic identification of people. No way, he exclaimed. No information about IAM or its products was ever to be taken out of the office, period!
The interview over, George told me I got the job. I completed a basic application form and we agreed that I would start in 10 days time. He said IAM has connections with immigration, and he could help with visa extensions, if I needed them. I declined, saying I was already making my own arrangements. I had reservations about taking the job, but I needed the money and the office being close to my room made the decision even easier. The salary was 8,000 baht a week (about US$200) plus any commission earned. It would be paid every Friday. The hours were tough. I had to start at 6.00 AM, and finish at 3. 00 PM. Lunch was at 10.00 AM, with two other breaks of 15 minutes. George had explained that the IAM had been running for about a year, and was planning on being in Bangkok a further year or more.
On my way out, I glanced around the offices. Most of the staff were westerners â€“ split 75 â€“ 25% men and women. I noticed a few Asian faces amongst them, also - from the Philippines, I found out later. Everyone was on the phone â€“ some standing, some pacing up and down, some shouting, some looking stressed out, the noise was incredible â€“ it was a Boiler Room in full flow. It didn't look promising. But, like I said, I needed the job and the money. Also, there were a group of Thais working together in one of the smaller offices. I went home to celebrate. The wife was happy when I told her the news about the job. She couldn't believe how much her foreign husband could earn â€“ 32,000 baht a month, plus commission. We proceeded to get drunk to toast our good luck. The next day, we went back to the village to check on the house. I felt relaxed, and happy. Little did I know what I had let myself in for?
THE FIRST DAY
The ten days passed quickly. The night before I started, I set the alarm for 5.00 AM. I was already wondering how long I could keep this early start business up. I didn't get much sleep worrying about my first day, and whether I would hear the alarm. No matter, I was already awake before it went off. Up, shower, eat and out into the dark. I was used the seeing the road outside my apartment bustling with traffic and locals going about their business. As I left the room, at 5.45 AM, it was dark, quiet and cool outside. I walked the 100 yards, or so, to the building. As I got near, I could see taxis drawing up and people getting out and heading into the building - my new colleagues were arriving for work. In to the lift, a few nods of acknowledgment, then, here I was on the 18th floor of a downtown Bangkok tower block, and my first day at work in a Bangkok Boiler Room.
The receptionist took me to George's office. After a quick chat, I was passed on to Mark, a tall English bloke. He was the floor manager, under George. Mark told me he would talk to me later, but first we had to have the team meeting. By now, the room had filled up. Fifty or so people were at their desks, some looking a bit worse for wear. The desks were basic, organized in rows and set up like cubicles, with just a phone on each. Early morning banter flew around. People were recounting tales from their weekends â€“ Pattaya, Nana, Patpong, Sukhumvit, shopping, boozing, Thai girlfriend problems, and the like. The Philippinoes hung together in a group, chatting and laughing, looking in better shape than most of the westerners. It was quite a mixed crowd, and a wide age group, too. Mainly 20 to 40 year olds, but some older, and three guys looked over 60, I thought.
George came onto the floor and called for order. Everyone stood by their desks. There was some banter between George and some of the staff. Next door, through the window dividing the two main offices, I could see the sales team having its own meeting. It was 6.00 AM, just getting light outside, I was feeling nervous. This was made worse when George introduced the 3 new people to the rest, including me. We all had to speak for about a minute, saying who we were - where we came from and anything else we could quickly think of. I got through OK. We were all given a round of applause for our efforts, to foster team spirit, I guessed. The room became quiet and George then spoke. He updated us on the product we were marketing, Biometrics, announced the names of the people who had earned commission, more applause, especially loud for those who had made big money, and generally urged everyone to stay on the phones and work hard. Sometimes he asked someone to give a short presentation. Twenty minutes or so, and the meeting was over. I grew to hate this part of the day, in case he asked me to make a presentation â€“ thankfully, he never did.
After the meeting, everyone split for the toilet, a coffee, or a quick chat before getting on the phones to make calls. Mark called us three newcomers together and started our training. He gave us each a 1 page presentation sheet that we were to use when calling customers. It was like a script. After making phone contact, and giving our name and the name of the company, we had to try to persuade the customer to receive a second call from an IAM rep to hear more about Biometrics stocks. In reality, what the second call was really all about was the sales pitch â€“ the follow up caller was a hard boiled salesman. Mark told us that we would be calling customers in Australia and New Zealand, only. The Aussies and Kiwis like a punt, I was told. Their names and phone numbers would be listed on computerized lists, which we could take from a tray in the office each morning. Every day, new sheets were made available. They were broken down into different customer categories: electricians; engineers; plumbers; farmers; doctors; lawyers; accountants; and lots more. I wondered where all the information came from.
Mark told us to tell the customers, if they asked how we got their name and phone number that we get referrals, or you must have at one time filled out a marketing form or some similar story. He also trained us to deal with rebuttals; the customer would say something like, â€œI lost a lot of money on stocks before, I'm not interested.â€ He'd tell us to respond, â€œWell, I'm sure you would like to opportunity to get some of that money back, wouldn't you?â€ They just had to say YES, Mark said. George joined the training session at one point and told us it was just like fishing â€“ temp them with the bait, and then you reel them in quick before they realize it.
Mark said we were expected to make 100 to 150 calls a day. He said we should be able to get 5 - 10 â€œleadsâ€ out of those calls; a lead being where a customer agrees to a second call from an IAM rep. This sounded easy, but it turned out to be a lot harder than I thought. The training lasted 3 days. We did roll plays. We practiced calls, the presentation, dealing with rebuttals and form filling. This is where we would write the name, address and phone number of the interested customer, the best time to call them back, telling them they would get a personalized pin number from the IAM rep so they could enter IAM's website to get more info, and how much money they might have to invest. If they baulked about this last point, we were to say it was just so that the second call could be tailor-made to suit them, and not waste their time. A lie, of course, but, I quickly realized that this was the way of things at IAM.
Steve, one of the two American co-owners of the company, came in on the third day of training and told Mark that we all needed to get started making live calls, but quick. Steve wanted people on the phones, getting leads. Mark had doubts, but Steve insisted. I found out later that Steve and his partner, Gene, the other co-owner were on the run from the FBI, and wanted in America and other places, too. Nice people I was working for.
DIALING FOR DOLLARS
My first day of calling, and I got 3 leads. So I was up and running. Mark was impressed. He was London wide boy type, who had left school early and worked in sales offices ever since. I think he thought I was too quiet to get the leads required. I quickly learned that this was what it was all about â€“ staying on the phone, and getting the leads in. Gene, one of company's co-owners, would wander around the office, shouting, â€œStay on the horns guys,â€ â€œKeep dialing for dollars.â€ If ever one of the salesmen closed a big deal, Gene would let the whole office know about it, loudly. Once, one of the American sales guys, the youngest, brought off a big sale - a customer bought a large amount of Biometric shares from him. Gene went round the office, shouting, â€œThe kid, the kid did it.â€
Some of the guys, and ladies, too, used fictitious names when dealing on the phone. A few wouldn't even give their real names to other members of staff. This only added to my feeling that the whole exercise was a swindle. Some of the English blokes used famous footballers' names to work under: â€œBobby Mooreâ€ and â€œTony Adamsâ€ were two I remember. One of the English girls, really working class, used a fancy Hollywood type name, â€œJune Lagoon.â€ George's real name, I heard, was Ingo. Mark had another name, too. I kept my own name when working.
There was quite a mixed crowd of marketers: Yanks; Germans; Aussies; a lone Dutchman; a single New Zealander, who had a violent Thai girlfriend, and who had connections back home who bought some stock; an Indian lady from Bangkok; the Philippinoe crew; and, of course, the Brits. I quickly tuned in to the fact that some of my work mates were, how would you say - dodgy! There were stories that some were on the run from their own countries: unpaid credit card bills; child maintenance arrears; debt dodgers; and other similar reasons. Some were retired. Some had a Thai girlfriend or wife to support. Others just wanted adventure: working abroad, living in Asia, something different. One of the Brits was a heroin addict, always borrowing money to fuel his habit. A couple of the older guys had businesses in Bangkok - import/export - jewellery - and worked at IAM to top up their money. There were no Thais, however, in the marketing team. George didn't like Thais - he thought they were lazy and stupid. They were only allowed to work in admin jobs, reception, security, maids and such like.
The pitchers, or sales team, in the next room, were 100% exclusively men. They split into two distinctive groups: Yanks and Brits. The Yanks were more sophisticated, middle class, well educated, and cool. The Brits were like Mark, my line manager, barrow boys, people who could shout at and bully a customer into buying stocks. They probably left school early and went straight into a sales job, but, they had the gift of the gab. Whereas the Americans used some charm, in addition to strong arm tactics, to get a deal, the Brits relied on sheer force. Controlling the customer was the key tactic â€“ opening accounts, loading up accounts, and closing a sale were the games they played. Once they got their teeth into a customer, if was difficult for them to wriggle free, even on the phone.
Payday was every Friday, a half day. We all lined up at midday to get paid in cash, no tax or social security here. We were called in to George's office where an American guy dished out the dollars - yes, US$, we weren't paid in local currency, the Thai baht. I was called in and given an envelope with my dollars in. I was told to check if my money was right, and then sign against my name in a book, if OK. A strange thing; the dollars were all brand new notes, clean, not a mark or a wrinkle. Over time, I noticed that everyone else was receiving brand new notes, as well. IAM had two floors in the building. There must have been hundreds of people being paid every Friday, including large commissions. How did they get so much brand new currency, I wondered? I asked some of the others about his. They just smiled, shrugged and said it didn't bother them. Anyway, I was getting US$200 a week, so like the others, why should I care? A few of the guys took me to what they said was the best local currency exchange office. I asked what they were planning for the weekend. Going to Pattaya they all said, beer and Thai girls, and asked me along. I explained the wife. Off they went. I went home to the village. I had survived my first week in a Bangkok Boiler Room.
A FRINGE BENEFIT
You couldn't go hungry at IAM. A vast amount of food and drink was available every day. The office had a well-stocked kitchen; fridges, cupboards bulging with all kinds of foodstuffs and beverages, and facilities to cook and prepare. There was bread, biscuits, cereals, snack bars, cold cuts, cheese, salad, rice, coffee, milk, soft drinks, energy drinks, toasters, water heaters and more. Maids would prepare a meal or sandwiches if you asked them. I went home every day feeling bloated and high from the food, coffee and red bull I had consumed.
There were two distinct ways to do the job â€“ cold calling. One; just make a few calls a day, but make them SMART and focused. The other approach was to just stay on the phone, and play the percentages game â€“ I chose the latter. It made the day go quicker and eased the boredom of cold calling and form filing. I even enjoyed talking to some of the customers. Some of the marketers got well involved with punters. More than a few arguments were played out down the phone with customers who were angry at getting yet another stock related cold call. Some of the Aussie and Kiwi customers I spoke to said they received 20 â€“ 30 of these calls in a single day! However, there were always 5 - 10 customers a day from the hundred plus calls I made who were willing to listen to my spiel, and agree to take a further call from an IAM rep â€“ once a punter, always a punter, or should it be, mug?
One Friday, I was in at the normal time, 5.45 AM. I went to the kitchen to have breakfast. It was payday, and the weekend beckoned. People were around, and some early morning banter flowed. I noticed that it was a bit quieter than usual. I was soon to find out why. Somebody's mobile rang. He picked up, and said hello. He listened and started to look worried. Suddenly, he closed the phone, and shouted, QUICK, GET OUT, THE POLICE ARE COMING, IT'S A RAID. We all scrambled to get out. Other mobiles were ringing, probably with the same message. A crowd of us rushed to the lifts. Everyone looked worried. We were all quiet. Then, someone said what if the Police are coming up in the lift? The only other way down was the emergency stairs, but 18 flights. The lift got nearer, it arrived, opened, and to everyone's relief was empty. We all piled in. Another scare, what if the Police were in the reception area? Lucky again, the doors opened and the coast was clear. We all ran out, and got away, fast.
It was still early, about 6 AM, so what a shock it must have been for anyone to see a large group of people come running out of the building and head off in all different directions. I went back to my room, double quick. Thoughts raced through my mind: What if I had been caught and arrested? How would my wife react? Will I get my salary? What about another job? What had happened? Was it all a hoax?
Later, I called George on his mobile. I couldn't get through for a while. I was worried. What about my money? Then, thankfully, he answered. We were all to meet at the World Trade Center in central Bangkok. I went along at midday. About 50% of the marketers were there. George arrived, and led us to a coffee shop inside the Mall. He paid us all, and told us to take a week off. It wasn't a big problem, he explained. We will we all be back at work shortly. Just keep in touch, he said. As it was, I never saw him or any of the others again.
What had happened? One of the guys called me. He said a son of a senior Thai official had a fight with a son of one of IAM's owner in a club, and complained to his dad, who lent on someone, hence the raid. The next morning's papers put the real reason right across the front pages. Some Aussie and Kiwi punters, tired of getting cold calls from Boiler Rooms across Asia, and others tired of losing their money after investing in the bogus shares had gone to the press. The Boiler Rooms were exposed. The FBI was already trailing some of the owners. Rumour had it that the local Police were pressurized to stop turning a blind eye, and told to close down the Bangkok Boiler Rooms. The FBI, Aussie and local Police had acted in concert - the Boiler Rooms were all busted. Hundreds of foreigners were held. Some were arrested. Evidence was gathered. Bangkok papers ran pictures of inside the Boilers Rooms, foreigners covering their faces to escape recognition. Some names were published of those held responsible. After a while, some cases came to court, and those few held and charged got off. Me, I moved on. I heard most of my work mates left town, just a few staying on where they had long term commitments. Someone told me that IAM moved to Madrid, where they were quickly run out of town.
So, the Bangkok Boiler Rooms were shut - no more jobs ads in the Bangkok Post, no more cold calls made, no more bogus stock investment offers made to unsuspecting customers in Australia and New Zealand - no more Bangkok Boiler Rooms. Not quite. Over the years, the Bangkok Post classified section has revealed a few ads that were clearly for Boiler Rooms - closers, salesmen, telephone marketers, loaders, openers wanted, the usual language of the Boiler Room. Some ads wanted staff for other parts of Asia. One friend of mine, who never believed Boiler Rooms ever existed, called the number listed in one ad, was interviewed, and told me he was amazed at what he heard â€“ the money involved, the names used as references by the person who interviewed him, how long the company had been in town, the whole set up was laid out to him, quite openly, in a meeting in a coffee shop in downtown Bangkok.
I read a Boiler Room got busted in London recently. Another was busted in Cambodia a couple of years back, so they haven't gone away, just relocated, still out there preying on the innocent, the naÃ¯ve, the punters who can't resist a bit of excitement, whatever the possible cost to their finances, and their lives. For me, it was another one of those â€œOnly in Thailand experiences.â€ The money I earned kept me afloat. I didn't feel guilty calling customers, because ultimately the decision to invest was theirs. But, it was one experience I never want to repeat, ever again.