Three years ago, MSNBC.com intentionally answered spam advertisements for cheap mortgage loans to see what would happen. Very soon, we received offers from a host of mortgage brokers, including household brands like Ameriquest and Quicken Loans, proving that spam is big business.
Now, we've proven something else: Spam never dies.
Recently, I received yet another solicitation in response to the spam I answered -- a full three years after the fact. In this case, I got a phone call from someone who was half-way around the globe asking if I was interested in refinancing my mortgage.
I knew the origin of the call because I answered the spam with a special name I'd borrowed by one of my childhood baseball heroes, and entered a rarely used spare phone line as the call-back number. The caller rang this spare line, and asked for my hero.
The telemarketer could barely speak English. But when I expressed even the slightest interest in talking, he transferred me to a supervisor, after explaining that he was "new on the job."
When quizzed, the supervisor said she worked for a marketing association in the outskirts of Los Angeles. My caller ID showed the call originating in northern Virginia. But neither of those was accurate. The call actually came from Mumbai, India, I would later discover.
The supervisor wouldn't tell me much about herself or her company, not even her first name. She said she had gotten my telephone number from public records, which are filed with every house purchase. That was a lie, of course, since she had called an office telephone line.
She asked for some very basic information – my house value, my loan amount and my interest rate. But then she was very eager to transfer my call again, despite my repeated questions about her company. Eventually, I agreed. In a bit of reportorial luck, she accidentally conferenced me in when making the transfer. I played dumb and listened in on their dialog.
Pursuing 'India leads'
Ray Herndon, the man who took the call, was irritated. It was late afternoon, probably too late to start on a new deal, he said. After putting up a bit of a complaint, he agreed to take the call.
"Mr. Hunter," he greeted me. "So I see your home is worth ...."
Herdon said he was a senior loan officer with Pacific Equity Services, a mortgage broker in Vancouver, Wash. I immediately asked Herndon how he'd gotten my phone number; he was honest with me.
"We call these 'India leads,'" he told me. Employees at a call center in India place the calls and then, when a consumer answers, they are transferred to loan officers in the U.S.
When I complained, Herdon referred me to company CEO Rod Santic.
Santic was also honest with me. He said he pays $24 for each "live transfer" of a potential customer.
"It's like reverse telemarketing," he said. Instead of paying his own employees to place hundreds of cold phone calls, Santic pays a company in Mumbai, India, for every potential customer they can successfully transfer to one of his loan officers.
"I don't know where (the leads) come from. I know it's pretty dark and bleak back there," he said.
The mortgage lead business is notoriously murky and cutthroat. Three years ago, when MSNBC.com answered its first spam, we found that mortgage companies paid about $10 apiece for our information. Those e-mail leads are only worth about $4 now, Santic said. Meanwhile, live transfer leads can cost as much as $100. Even so, the quality of those leads is often terrible, he said.
Thanks to the Do Not Call list, the number of consumers who can be cold-called and turned into a business deal is ever-shrinking.
But even if you are on the Do Not Call list, as our experience shows that one momentary lapse of reason, one spam you answer, or even one mortgage refinancing advertisement you click on, could make you the subject of unsolicited marketing pitches for years. You're better off avoiding such pitches all together.