Friday, March 16, 2018

Mormons, Polygamists, and Evangelicals: My Experience with the iWorks Scandal

Mormons, Polygamists, and Evangelicals: My Experience with the iWorks Scandal

In late 2008 I moved to Ephraim, Utah in the Sanpete valley for a few months one year after graduating from high school.  
I lived in the second story of a coffee shop caddy-corner from Snow College in what was once an old polygamist house. To quell any doubt of its history, the owner loved showing guests a false wall in a bedroom revealing a secret space, furnished with a small wire bed, where a polygamist hide wives during US marshal inspection.
“It’s Mormon forbidden but good!” the owner would jest pitching a cup of coffee. The shop was run by a determined group of evangelical Christians aiming to provide diversity in the homogeneous Mormon environment to the young student population attending Snow. There were Mormon church buildings every few blocks in the Mormon grid-planned city and the coffee shop was one of the few non-Mormon religious groups in the region. I was personally ex-Mormon having determined Mormonism wasn't for me at a young age.  I had become acquainted with the coffee shop years previous by chance on a MySpace page.  I moved to Utah with the hope to learn more about Christian ministry targeting Mormons as I had hoped to eventually to enter ministry.  My Mormon childhood had exposed me to enough religion to think ministry was my best chance at having a positive impact.  I planned on finding work and being apart of the coffee shop efforts.  This "internship" would be apart of my schooling.

Polygamists

Ephraim sits an hour south of Provo with large stretches of open valley and farms between. During my first trip to Provo. A few large white buildings caught my attention.
“Why are there hotels out here in the middle of nowhere?”
“Those aren’t hotels,” a friend replied. “Those are polygamist homes.”
Once a friend whispered at the Walmart in Ephraim while pointing their nose inconspicuously at the checkers, “They’re all married to the same man”. I later confirmed that indeed all the checkers there that night had been married to the same man.

Gays, Google AdWords, and an Illegal Alien: The iWorks Whirlwind

As a broke 19 year old, a call center selling Internet products was the most appealing employer in the Sanpete valley.  After a short interview I was hired.  They noted my Coloradoan accent was perfect for the job.  My calls were related to Google educational products.  
My first shock came shortly after being assigned a desk. I was at the end of a row and only had one person next to me.  
“Next week is my last week”. The young woman who sat next to me said. “They found me.”
I raised my eyebrow with obvious confusion. “They found you?”
“I get deported next week. I have no family in Mexico, I don’t know Spanish, and I’ve lived here my whole life. All I’ve ever known is Sanpete. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
I never would have guessed.  She was a perfect, respectful, hard working American.  She told me she was brought to America when she was only a few months old.  She was gone the next week and was perhaps 20 years old.  
Many of the managers were apart of a relatively liberal polygamist group in Manti with some managers even married to the same men. Many of the workers were a part of another polygamist group in the valley. There were also a few Mormons and a handful of non-Mormon Christians.  
The first week on the job my supervisor told me, “Management likes you Zach. I overheard one of the managers saying, ‘His voice is as smooth as butter.’” Before the end of my first week, my metrics were outstanding.  I was a young kid who had loved everything computers and spent most of my free time playing with Linux.  I was able to manage their workflow intuitively and my metrics showed it.  
Later, in a private closed door review, that same manager said with a thick Sanpete accent, "Your voice is as smooth as butter.  If I wasn't married I'd snatch you right up."  She was at least a decade or two older than her sister wives and perhaps double my age.  I was 19 at the time.  "Was she just horney?" I wondered.
The overseas call center was on a Filipino island and we were told that not only were all male Filipino employees gay, but in fact, the whole island was gay.  Was this the biased perception of the polygamist management or a poor retelling of a poem by Sappho of Lesbos?  The truth stayed hidden as I never dared to ask our Filipino coworkers directly, but they were very friendly and overjoyed to talk with Americans.  
“Hi sir Zach! It’s so good to hear you, sir Zach!” I would hear ecstatically many times a day. We would laugh at their cheerful insistence on always calling us "sir".  

Gabe

One of my roommates was Gabe, an ex-Mormon like me. We meet before during my previous summer visits to the Sanpete Valley and always enjoyed his cheerful company.

Gabe was in need of work, but had terrible seizures from neurosarcoidosis at night.  Sleep proved a difficult burden to overcome in holding a day job. He had been let go from various places around the Valley who saw Gabe as flaky and undependable.  As his roommate I knew the grimmer reality of his condition.
iWorks was in desperate need of help and I asked them to hire Gabe.  I explained his condition and they were willing to deal with the unexpected absences Gabe’s seizures caused. “Show up when you can and we’ll pay you for that."

Scandal Uncovered

One day a Filipino employee transferred a call to me. Normally there were no issues as we would issue refunds reasonably liberally, but this particular customer insisted on speaking with a supervisor despite a full refund. As English speaking Americans, most American positions were “supervisors” of the overseas staff.
“Here’s the link to the signup page”, I said to the customer.  
They responded, “No. this was not the link. I signed up on a different link.”
"This is the link I have sir."
“No, you are wrong. I read everything thoroughly. The page promised not to charge my credit card” They said stressing every syllable. “Please, find out what they are doing and stop them from hurting people.” They paused to convey their express intent.
“Get to the bottom of this and stop them from hurting more people.”
I was moved by the genuine plea for correctness so I started to search.
iWorks had given us a large list of links to all the company’s products. During training I had also seen a map of “target regions” which was the contiguous United States with the glaring exception of Utah itself. iWorks did not sell products to Utah, and appeared to exclude Utah from its AdWords campaigns. I had always thought this was strange, so I searched Google for terms related to our products over a VPN to outside the state. Google products, health, supplements, fitness and weightloss training, and “acai berry”. I quickly found an ad for one of our product pages.
He was right. The page iWorks showed to customers was totally different from the links given to employees.   The only way we would have discovered this was by using an Internet connection outside of the state.  
Nearly identical to the links given to employees the customer facing page explicitly promised to not charge after the trial period. The page the employees were given said exactly the opposite. The link the company provided in emails and to employees was purposely deceitful. Management had been purposely deceiving employees with false pages which we were then giving to complaining victims. Even more concerning, from my workstation I could not access the URL, but it worked fine over the VPN. They were purposely blocking links inside the building and perhaps from IP addresses in the state. Even if a customer had sent us a link, employees would never have a way to view it, and would assume the customers were wrong. No outside emails were allowed.  There was little chance an employee could ever see a screenshot and even then, how would they know it wasn't doctored?
I immediately reported this to my supervisor, wrote an email to management, and quietly spoke with the trusted friends I had in the office.
“I’ll issue refunds to everyone who calls in!” Gabe exclaimed when I told him my discovery and showed him the links.
“You'll probably lose your job, Gabe.”
“I don’t care, this is wrong. I’m giving everyone a refund that calls in. I won’t let them cheat old grandmas like this!”
I was happily stunned at Gabe’s fidelity. This was the only job Gabe could hold in the valley, and he didn’t give it a second thought. He refused to do anything wrong. He refused immoral compensation.  There were others in the call center that felt the same way.  
One of my other friends was not so gallant.  “I can’t lose this job. I have to provide for my wife. I’ll just do what I’m told and trust that it’s okay with God.”  I was disgusted with his appeal to God to bless  willing compliance. He was able bodied, mobile, and could find work elsewhere if it came to that.  It was a final blow to a strained friendship and was a stark contrast to Gabe’s intrepid commitment to justice.  This friend was one of the reasons I had been living in Utah hoping to learn more about ministry.  Without a strong sense of morality, I didn't desire to work with them on any future endeavor.

Coverup

I got a message from my supervisor the next day. “Management wants to see you.”
“It’s been fun.” I thought as I entered the manager's office.
“We’ve been impressed with your performance Zach. We are promoting you and giving you a raise, a bonus, and making you a supervisor trainer over one of our new programs.” My mouth dropped. I had only been there a few weeks and they were planning on promoting me?  Did they not notice the volume of refunds we were giving?  Our meeting was short, and as I was leaving, she remarked, “Oh and one more thing, about your email, we’ve fixed the problem, thank you for bringing it to our attention. It was a mistake from one of our old, out of commission sites. We’ve taken it down, and we'll be sure that we'll make it right with the few customers affected who signed on from that page.”  I checked that night at home, the secret pages I had found were removed. Just maybe it was a genuine mistake.  My new duties removed me from working with customers or product links directly and I wondered if this was the reason for my promotion.   Regardless, if they tried it again, I would stay vigilant.  
In a couple weeks iWorks release a new acai berry product. Again, I searched Google for terms related to our products over a VPN.  Again, I found landing pages purposely omitting charge information and promising customers that they would not be charged.  The copy distributed internally that had been given was the exact inverse with explicit information about credit card charges. Again, employees could not access customer URLs from inside the call center.  This was definitive. These pages were new for the new products. This was the final nail in the coffin. They knew exactly what they were doing. They were purposely lying to their customers and charging millions.  
I told everyone that would listen to me in the call center and showed them printouts of my proof.  I wrote another email to my previous supervisor and CC’d management and I turned in my resignation.  I felt like I had little reason to stay so I left Utah in the beginning of 2009, moving back to Pueblo, Colorado, my home.

Conclusion

I regret not whistle blowing, but as a 19 year old I didn’t understand the full depth of iWorks deceit. I didn't know whistleblowing was a thing. I didn't know what they were doing was illegal as they had the blessings of the banks and credit card companies.  I only knew what they were doing was morally wrong and I wouldn't be apart of it, just like Comcast's attacks on net neutrality.   Thankfully, Jeremy Johnson, the owner of iWorks, was rightfully sentence in a federal case in what is being called the “biggest political scandal in Utah history”.  I hope he's removed from doing any harm for a long time.  
My friend Gabe, 31, of Ephraim, Utah, passed away unexpectedly on October 15, 2014 from complications with neurosarcoidosis.  I will never forget Gabe's commitment to doing the right thing in face of the vacuous unknown.  

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