Reality show contestants duped into selling

February 13, 2008 12:00:00 AM PST
Thousands of college students who saw a pitch for a reality show were promised riches and celebrity status. 7 On Your Side investigated and found out what really happened to their big dreams. We traveled three states to investigate.

It all seemed so real. These college students told us they thought they were on their way to the top and that this was going to be the next big "Apprentice"-type reality show. So why didn't it every air? And how did Bay Area consumers get caught up in it all?

After months of not seeing each other, these college students are about to relive a summer ordeal that all began with a slick pitch: "If you dream of becoming rich and famous, star on a reality show and win one million dollars."

For many students, it all began on the campus of Arizona State University.

"This guy came up to me in the cafeteria, handed me a flyer and said, 'Hey, do you want to be on TV?" says student, Tyler Heald.

"They had this big display and it says, 'The Prodigy,' and there's like music and a whole bunch of people out there cheering it up," says student, Suffian Hamdan.

Students from around the country were invited to try out for a new reality program called "The Prodigy."

Audition (female): "I will do whatever I can to make whatever it is you need, the best it can be."

This particular casting call took place in Utah.

Audition (male): "Why am I 'The Prodigy'? Because I'm the best salesman here and I've got a great personality."

In all, it's believed 2,000 college students were selected to compete for the million-dollar prize.

"That's the reason we got pumped up. That's the reason I went out a week early. Because I'm like, I'm going to be the best. I'm going to get a head start on all these guys and all these other schmos," says a student.

With shooting about to begin, students fanned out across the country. Videos promised a life of ski trips, private helicopters and world travel. Instead, the students wound up in Fresno, crammed six to a room in apartments.

Some students didn't even know there was a reality program being filmed.

"Two weeks in they're like, 'Oh yeah, by the way, there might be a camera crew coming.' I'm just sitting here going, 'what?'" says student Devin Schaible.

And on the first day of filming, there was no filming.

"We didn't see a camera once the whole summer," says student, Moustafa Imam.

And the task they had to complete? Selling home alarms.

"The Prodigy" promotion: "Door-to-door sales, 10 hours a day, six days a week, four grueling months, all going head to head for the grand prize of one million dollars."

"We'd pile into vans and they'd drop us in neighborhoods we've never been in before," says student, Colin Greenbauer.

Selling alarm systems is not easy work, and that became apparent quickly. Apparent too, sales techniques out of the ordinary.

Finney: "Were you lied to?"

Group: "Yes."

Finney: "Did you lie to people?"

Group: "Yes."

"We were told to tell people that we were not salesman and we were going to provide them a free home security system," says Greenbauer.

"We're not selling anything, we're just giving it away and the city is charging you guys to connect to the system," says student, Drew Cavner.

In the Firstline training manual it says to stand with your GE logo facing the customer.

"We were advertising directors for General Electric" says student, Josh Skube.

They were taught how to sneak their way into homes.

"There was no warning. I mean, all of a sudden there's somebody at the door," says Arthur Slauer of Union City.

"We would take away perfectly good systems out of people's houses and put in our crap," says Schaible.

Phuong Le of Berkeley fell for it, too. Her ADT system was ripped out and she says a faulty one put in.

"We don't want to hear anything from them, we don't want to deal anything with them. I just turned it off," says Le.

"We didn't know at first. I legitimately thought the system was going to be really good," says Cavner.

And through all of this, no cameras.

Finney: "Did they have a way for you to get voted off the island, or 'you're fired?'"

Group: "No."

The alarms being sold were from a company called Firstline Security of Orem, Utah. We called Firstline and set up an appointment for an interview at the company's Utah headquarters. When we arrived just three days later, the company had cleared out and filed bankruptcy, too.

A tip led me to the company's storage and call center across town. The door was locked and no one was opening it for me, but customer service director, Cindy Sullivan, did come out and talk.

Finney: "Did someone win the million dollars?"

Sullivan: "I honestly have not been involved with 'The Prodigy.' I'm not involved with the sales side, really."

Finney: "Oh, but you would know if somebody won a million dollars?"

Sullivan: "I don't know. I did see somebody come pick up a Hummer."

Finney: "Viewers watching this are going to say this is a squirrely way to do business."

Sullivan: "What's squirrely?"

Finney: "Picking up kids, taking them to another state, charging them to live in an apartment, moving them around in a van, charging them to pay for the van."

Sullivan: "That's actually fairly typical for summer sales because the overhead costs for having offices in certain cities only for four months of the year are fairly extensive."

She also said the systems they sold work very well.

I went looking for company owner, Wright Thurston, and found him in the parking lot of the building he'd just deserted.

Finney: "First of all, did you give away a million dollars to a contestant?"

Thurston: "I'd probably like to not comment 'till my lawyer's here."

Finney: "Your own sales people say they were told to say they were from GE."

Thurston: "That's not true either... If you want to contact my attorney, you can."

Finney: "You know, this is pretty important. You really shouldn't drive away. You ought to talk about this. Oh, don't leave. You're going to leave?"

"The Prodigy" Web site lists the sponsors of the program, including GE Security. GE is not amused.

"I can tell you unequivocally that we are not now, nor have we ever been a sponsor of that or if there are any other programs for that company," says Steve Hill with General Electric.

So was there ever really going to be a show? We reached "The Prodigy" producer, Ed Anderson, by phone. He told us the reality show was real and someone did win. He would not say who.

When we asked the students if anyone won the million dollars, they all shook their heads and laughed.

"And they took advantage of quality individuals, not just in Fresno and Concord and here, all over the country," says Greenbauer.

Firstline says if anyone used or taught deceptive practices, it was the work of rogue employees, not company policy. The California Department of Consumer Affairs is now investigating 28 complaints against Firstline, but the company is still licensed to operate in California.

One final note -- Firstline's Cindy Sullivan contacted me after my visit there to say no one ever did win that million-dollar prize.


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