I hear confession is good for the soul.

Sparkling Confessions — I hear they're good for the soul.

Do you have any skeletons rattling around in your résumé?

Well, I do. I worked for six months at an “introductions agency”.

That was the term we used because we thought it sounded more up-market than “dating agency”. It it wasn’t even a good matchmaker, either. The agency was set up as a scam — it sucked in lonely people merely so they would give us their credit card details.

Of course, it took me a while to figure it all out. I was hired as “Marketing Manager” by the agency in between two very respectable jobs — one at a healthcare magazine and the other at a government agency.

When I accepted the job, I was enamoured with the idea of being “Marketing Manger” and jumped at the opportunity to work on websites. (Those people at the healthcare magazine couldn’t see the importance of having a website … but I guess it was 2000.) I also needed a job with a steady income so we could get a house loan, and this one looked like it was paying well.

Corporate Centre One, Bundall
My office building. (Photo courtesy of Gold Coast Info.)

My work at the introductions agency was fun… I worked in a tall building near Surfers Paradise. I developed a new logo, printed stationery, standardised their forms and proofread correspondence. I also placed ads in newspapers around the country, working with a budget of around $20,000 a month to lure unsuspecting customers in.

One time I directed a television commercial, working with the camera crew, booking all the actors and props and setting up the scenes in Jupiters Casino’s grand ballroom and a private restaurant. It was a heady experience — I was having so much fun!

I think my first clue that things were not so picture-perfect was when the owner, Helen, tried to over-rule the wording on my newspaper ads. When writing them up, I used client cards to create personals based on the [few] attractive people we had on our books:

44yo slim, blonde local woman seeks friendly farmer for relationship. Likes long drives, movies and music. Call XXXX XXXX for more details and quote XXXXX.

But Helen liked to use a generic ad to encourage new clients to call. I felt it was dishonest because 1. that person didn’t live in the area we were advertising and 2. the person was a composite and didn’t exist — at least not on our books!

Helen disagreed, arguing that all men wanted attractive women, and once they met the available women in their area, they would find someone, fall in love, and thank us anyway.

Soooooo, there was the issue of truth in advertising from early on. I stood my ground and refused to run the fake ads. I knew Helen booked the ads that I refused to run, but it was her company, right?

A little later on, I discovered that our advertised membership was hugely inflated. We advertised something like 20,000 members Australia-wide, and really only had about 6,000. It didn’t seem like a big deal to me to drop to the lower figure, except that our main rival advertised that they had 18,000…

During my time at the agency, there were staff issues — we had a very high turnover — and were always advertising for more salespeople. Basically, the salespeople had be very friendly on the phone and set up people who didn’t really want to be set up. It was a tough job, and we didn’t pay well, offering a base salary with attractive bonuses for those who upgraded their clients.

We didn’t have the numbers to guarantee the compatibility that we advertised, and so we just had to work around the location of the clients, trying to pair people who lived at least somewhere close to each other. One salesperson — Heather — became so close to one of her clients that she ended up going up to Toowoomba to see him herself! (All I remember about him is that he grew Geraldton wax flowers.)

We allowed women free membership because the men would willingly pay to join if the women were already on our books. Some men were very specific about what kind of women they wanted (read: unrealistic), and it was the salespeople’s job to talk them around.

The way it worked, each client was signed into into a schedule of payments that followed each introduction. The bottom fee was $165 and clients could pay as much as $10,000 or even more in order to receive “gold membership” which — in essence — didn’t give them much more value for their dollar.

Helen was a very smooth talker — quite a flirt — and she would guarantee the world to her client before slamming down the phone and swearing at them. I still have a mental picture of her rolling her eyes as she pushed her hair off her forehead.

She would push up the paying schedules so money would come from the card before the payment schedule stipulated. She would hold out dates as a ransom for more money, promising “just the right lady for you” if she could upgrade the client to the next level.

Soon I started to hear about the “charge-backs” — a term I was unfamiliar with. It meant that the client had phoned his bank, complained about the debit to his account, and we had to cough the money up plus pay a fee to the bank. Helen must have gambled that some of her fraudulent charges would slip through, and they would cover the charge-back fees from the other, more vigilant clients.

Close to the end of my work at the agency, a minor scandal rocked our office. Someone was stealing money from people’s desk drawers. It wasn’t much — just the small change we would keep on hand to purchase snacks from the vending machine in the lobby. We all suspected it was the manager’s son, who came in with her on Saturday mornings while she caught up on the bookwork. But Sandi vehemently denied it was her boy.

So I used the web-cam on my computer to watch the corner of my desk where I left some coins. And I set it recording at very low-resolution over the weekend so we could see who was taking the money.

On Monday, the whole office was waiting to see who was on the video. The money was gone, and they knew that I would be able to prove who took it.

Well, when I reviewed the footage, it showed Helen — the owner! — coming straight into my office after everyone was gone, scraping up the coins and then leaving right away. She must have spied the money earlier and made a mental note about it.

After I saw that Helen was on the video, I refused to show anyone else — I shut down my computer and called Helen. I asked to meet her somewhere neutral, and I told her about the video. She blustered that she thought it was the change due to her because someone had bought her lunch.

The explanation wasn’t satisfactory to me — I finally understood that Helen’s propensity to steal from her clients extended to her staff too. She lived a very expensive lifestyle and couldn’t support it with honest work.

Soon after that, I took a couple days off work “sick”. I wasn’t physically ill, but the stress of the dishonesty tied my stomach into knots, and I didn’t want to face Helen any more. When I returned to work, I confronted Helen about the false advertising, and she fired me on the spot.

After I left, it took me a year and a half to receive my outstanding pay. (Thankfully I could retrieve it through the Office of Fair Trading’s solicitors and didn’t have to chase it personally.)

In the end, the agency was closed down in a spectacular fashion by the Office of Fair Trading. It was ordered to pay almost half a million dollars in compensation to 54 clients. The Fair Trading Minister at the time said that the agency I worked for was “the driving force behind the creation of the Introduction Agents Act” which now licences and regulates the industry in Queensland.

Yeah, what a legacy. I’m glad I got out when I did!

Have you ever been in a dodgy job? Do tell…