[Marxism] ‘We’re an Easy Target’: Taken In by the Trump Brand
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Sun Jun 26 08:45:58 MDT 2016
NY Times, June 26 2016
‘We’re an Easy Target’: Taken In by the Trump Brand
By MIKE McINTIRE
Six years after spending $35,000 to learn Donald J. Trump’s real estate
secrets, Cheryl Lankford said she had a nagging sense that she was taken
advantage of. Credit Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times
The sales pitches seeking to separate Cheryl Lankford from her money
began during the recession as she struggled to get back on her feet
after the death of her husband, an American soldier serving in Iraq.
Two of them were from companies that have boasted the Trump name.
One was Trump University, the real estate sales seminar that Donald J.
Trump promoted as a way for average people to profit from opportunities
in the housing market. Ms. Lankford said she spent $35,000 from an Army
insurance payment to learn Mr. Trump’s secrets.
Another was Cambridge Who’s Who, a vanity publisher promising “branding
services” that seemed to complement the real estate business she hoped
to create. She paid thousands of dollars to Cambridge, whose spokesman
and “executive director of global branding” was Mr. Trump’s eldest son,
Six years later, Ms. Lankford, who is 44 and has a son, has little to
show for the money she spent, aside from a nagging sense that she was
taken advantage of. Several friends in her community in San Antonio fell
for similar offers, she said, but most are not eager to talk about it.
“As a widow, you find you were so dependent on your husband, and when
you make a mistake because of predatory businesses, it’s embarrassing,”
Ms. Lankford said. “We’re an easy target.”
“Easy target” might describe the audience for several enterprises
stamped with the Trump brand that have been accused of preying upon
desperation, inexperience or vanity. Some are well known. Trump
University has most recently gained notice because of Mr. Trump’s
attacks on the Mexican heritage of the judge overseeing a fraud lawsuit
brought by former students. There was also a multilevel vitamin-selling
enterprise, the Trump Network, that Mr. Trump had said would give hope
to people looking to “opt out of the recession.”
But intersecting with these was another, largely unexamined, business
venture, Cambridge Who’s Who, which generated hundreds of complaints
that it deceptively peddled the promise of recognition in a registry, as
well as branding and networking services of questionable value. Dozens
of people who paid Trump-endorsed businesses were also sold products by
Cambridge, which benefited from its partnership with Donald Trump Jr.
through “leveraging relationships built by the Trump empire,” according
Cambridge was not a Trump company; it was operated by Randy Narod, a
Long Island, N.Y., nightclub and bagel store owner barred from the
securities industry for having had an impostor take his licensing exam.
However, Cambridge gained the Trump imprimatur when the younger Mr.
Trump came on board in 2010 and began promoting its services as a way
for people to distinguish themselves in a tough economic climate.
He worked in plugs for Cambridge during interviews on the Fox Business
Network and TheStreet.com, did a promotional video and appeared in
photos with Mr. Narod. Among them was one with another Trump executive
at Trump Tower in New York, where, according to a news release, the
three men discussed “strategies to expand the personal branding and
professional networking services offered by Cambridge Who’s Who.” Mr.
Narod’s company said on its website that it had embarked on a “global
expansion with the Trump Organization.”
“Branding is the best way to gain recognition and exposure, and nobody
knows this more than the Trump Organization,” the younger Mr. Trump said
in a promotion for Cambridge.
“We had scripts to read when we made our calls to people, and when
Donald Trump Jr. came along, our scripts were changed to include him in
it,” said Joy Debono, a former Cambridge telemarketer. “We would
basically say that Cambridge was a good company because Trump was
involved in it.”
Donald Trump Jr. declined to answer questions about his work for
Cambridge. His father’s presidential campaign issued a statement saying
the younger Mr. Trump’s role at the company “was an arrangement made
totally outside of the Trump Organization and there was never any
commingling of the two corporations at any level.”
Mr. Narod said that the younger Mr. Trump worked with Cambridge for a
year while also continuing as a top executive with the Trump
Organization, and that he had been aware of the complaints against
Cambridge, as well as Mr. Narod’s censure by the securities industry.
“Don Jr. was hired for a very short time as a spokesperson to help our
members with their personal branding, since he and his family build one
of the biggest brands in the world,” Mr. Narod said. “We believed that
he could be essential to enhance their online presence.”
The “who’s who” industry has a long and dubious history.
There are some well-established companies that publish directories of
professionals in various fields, such as lawyers and top corporate
executives. But there are many others that target people of little
distinction, shower them with accolades and then try to sell them costly
“honors” such as placement in a directory or wall plaques.
Cambridge and its subsidiary, Worldwide Branding, took the model a step
further, adding the promise of branding — news releases, video
biographies and a personalized web page — and networking with other
Cambridge customers who paid a membership fee to join.
When Donald Trump Jr. joined Cambridge, the company had already had
about 400 complaints filed against it with the Better Business Bureau
since 2006. Scores more appeared in online consumer forums like Ripoff
Report, where customers vented about misleading sales calls, worthless
products and difficulties getting refunds. Many of the complaints
describe a similar pattern of aggressively steering people into ever
more expensive products.
A 69-year-old woman from Kansas reported that she had paid $788 for
services she claimed were “not worth $50 collectively” while she was
going through a divorce and “looking for a way to make a living, build a
new life and expand my career through this organization.” After she
complained to the New York State attorney general’s office, she
eventually received a refund.
“I felt so stupid,” the woman, identified only as “Pepper,” wrote in an
online posting. “My takeaway is this: all is not gold that glitters, and
that includes the Trump name. Buyer beware!”
In Oregon, Phyllis Fread was in her 80s, dealing with Parkinson’s
disease and had been retired from teaching for almost two decades when
Cambridge started calling her at home, where she lived alone. Cambridge
salespeople telephoned Ms. Fread — who did not use the internet — 42
times trying to sell her networking services, a website and other
products she did not need, according to an investigation by the Oregon
attorney general’s office.
Over a two-year period, Cambridge charged her $14,593 for a video
biography, calendars, a plaque and other items, including a news release
in June 2010 titled “Phyllis J. Fread Reveals Her Secret to a Long
Career in Education.” The release included a mention of Donald Trump
Jr., saying he “was eager to share his extensive experience” with
Eventually, Ms. Fread reached her credit card limit and her son
disconnected her telephone to stop Cambridge from calling. In a recorded
interview with an investigator from the attorney general’s office, Ms.
Fread became emotional as she recalled how “there were all kinds of
things they’d push and I’d say, ‘I don’t want it at all.’”
“I remember saying, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t need anything, I don’t want
anything.’ And then you couldn’t get a word in edgewise. I probably
should have hung up,” she said. “But I didn’t.”
Cambridge was accused by the state of “unfair, deceptive and
unconscionable practices” and settled without admitting guilt, issuing a
refund to Ms. Fread in 2012. She died 18 months later.
Mr. Narod said many complaints about Cambridge stemmed from early
“growing pains” before it transitioned from just a book-and-a-plaque
vanity publisher to one that added branding services. Cambridge — which
in recent years has shifted its focus to finding customers outside the
United States through a related venture called Worldwide Who’s Who — has
worked to improve its sales techniques and to better address complaints,
he said. The latest Better Business Bureau records show close to 100
complaints in the last three years about Cambridge and Worldwide.
“It has been quite some time since Cambridge has received negative
comments, and we believe that is a testament to the strength of our
products and the work that we did to make necessary operational
improvements,” Mr. Narod said.
A search of online records, as well as interviews, turned up dozens of
members who also paid other companies licensed or endorsed by the
Trumps, although Mr. Narod denied that the businesses exchanged customer
leads. “We have never shared or sold our data with the Trump
Organization, Trump University or Trump Network,” he said.
What they did have in common were sales appeals that had a similar theme
of offering help navigating the recession. Ads for Trump University
referred to government bailouts for banks, and asked the question,
“Who’s helping you?” Similarly, Donald Trump Jr. went on Fox Business
and said Cambridge clients “are people that the stimulus should be
“It’s a very difficult economy out there, a very difficult job market,”
he told TheStreet.com while discussing Cambridge. “And you really have
to position yourself so you can take advantage of all those things
Ms. Lankford, who heads her local Texas chapter of Gold Star Wives,
which represents spouses of fallen soldiers, said she had lost money in
the stock market collapse and decided to use an insurance payment from
her husband’s death to try to start her own business. Her husband,
Jonathan M. Lankford, a command sergeant major in the Army, died in
Baghdad in September 2007.
In late 2009, she responded to an appeal from Trump University, which
promised to “turn anyone into a successful real estate investor” and
paid for the full package of seminars. Soon, however, she found they
were of little practical value and she began “calling them and asking
“They ended up putting me in touch with some fellow out in California
who tried to talk me into investing in trailer parks,” she said. “It was
Cambridge, meanwhile, was supposed to help Ms. Lankford “create my
brand” to promote her real estate efforts, and in some of the many calls
she received over several years, the company’s representative cited
Donald Trump Jr.’s role, she said. But after spending several thousand
dollars — which got her, among other things, a wall plaque, a news
release and a hard-to-find web page — she said she received no
Ms. Lankford never filed complaints or pursued refunds, saying that it
probably would have been fruitless, and that she was too busy raising
her young son on her own and trying to rebuild her life. She came away
from her experience believing both businesses were “all about taking
money from people who don’t have much to begin with.”
The Promise of Profits
Besides Trump University, there were other Trump-connected enterprises
that resonated with Cambridge members struggling to get ahead.
On one of several Cambridge websites for its members, a chat group
created in 2010 titled “Making Money in a Recession” contained an appeal
to join ACN, a multilevel marketer of telecommunications and energy
services that was “endorsed by Donald Trump and was featured in an
episode of ‘Celebrity Apprentice.’” Mr. Trump’s financial disclosure
shows that he has collected more than $1 million in speaking fees from
ACN, which charged people $499 to sell its products with the promise of
profits for bringing in additional members, and has been the subject of
There was also an appeal for the Trump Network, the marketer of vitamins
and nutritional supplements to which Mr. Trump licensed his name.
Originally called Ideal Health and rebranded in 2009, the Trump Network
and its top salespeople lured those hit by the economic downturn,
suggesting they could become rich through commissions for bringing in
Christine Turner, a disabled nurse in upstate New York, said a friend
persuaded her to spend “close to $500” to get started with the Trump
Network, but that it “didn’t pan out” after she struggled to get others
involved. She also paid to join Cambridge, attracted to the prospect of
networking with other members, but that did not work either.
“I didn’t have any good experiences with members coming or approaching
me or asking for products,” Ms. Turner said, adding that she did not
hold her bad experiences against the Trumps.
“I was fine with it, even with losing a little bit of money,” she said.
“I really think that Donald Trump is a powerful businessman and I’m
actually for him, I’m not afraid to say that.”
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