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, a U.S. 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 Trump promoted as a way for average people to profit from opportunities in the housing market. Lankford said she spent $35,000 from an Army insurance payment to learn 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 Trump’s eldest son, Donald Jr.
Six years later, 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,” 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 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 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 to Cambridge.
Cambridge was not a Trump company; it was operated by Randy Narod, a Long Island, New York, 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 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 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.” 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 Trump said in a promotion for Cambridge.
Cambridge employees played up the Trump association when pursuing customers.
“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 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.”
Narod said the younger 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 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,” 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 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 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 Cambridge clients.
Eventually, 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, 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 Fread in 2012. She died 18 months later.
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,” Narod said.
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 for help.”
“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 a joke.”
Cambridge, meanwhile, was supposed to help 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 meaningful benefits.
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.”