Associate Producer Todd F. Stallkamp posed as a student at several schools while 60 Minutes II videotaped how vendors try to hawk credit cards to students. He gives a first-person account of going under cover on campus. Pretending to be laid-back and cool is not as easy as you think.
It was my first day on campus. I was nervous. I didn't know anyone. I didn't know what building I was in. And I was afraid I wasn't fitting in. This is common. But unlike most new students, I had a camera strapped to my body.
A hidden camera is not a simple device. Tucked under one arm was the recording unit, under the other, a battery pack. A microphone cable ran up my chest. The on/off switch ran through a hole in my pocket; it's the size of a pager. A cord ran up my back and plugs into the camera, which in this case was a pair of sunglasses. Surprisingly, under an oversized sweatshirt, the hidden camera remains hidden.
The rig, as it is called, was attached to me via a harness. The fit was snug; I was told that, if needed, I could run with it; somehow that was meant to be reassuring.
So, along with a camera crew, we began scouting the University of Oklahoma campus. We were hoping to find a credit card vendor. Banks hire people to hawk their cards directly to college students. We needed to hear the pitch, and we needed it on tape. Vendors are instructed not to talk to the press and alert their boss if they should be approached by the press. Hence, the hidden camera.
Our first day out, a woman sat in a highly trafficked area in the student union. A sign for an "OU Visa Card" was hanging behind her. Several students were filling out applications around her.
We were ready to move. Our second cameraman was shooting on a handheld digital camera. He was playing an alumnus making home movies. He found his spot in the college's bookstore. He could film the pitch through a store window there, capturing in his lens all the action. I headed for a nearby restroom. I checked my gear and caught my breath, giving myself a pep talk in the stall.
It was a one-shot deal.
If they didn't make the pitch, who knows when our next chance would come. The pressure was high.
Playing dumb often opens some doors for you. I wandered to the table. Preparing for my approach, I faked a conversation with my cell phone. I ran through the script. We put together a series of questions and expected answers. I had a final moment to cover the details.
The second camera was in place. I needed to be close enough so my microphone would pick up the conversation. I had to keep the camera focused, keep my head still and be conscious of the shot. I needed to play the role, college student. I couldn't be slick, too pushy, and I had to be laid-back, Mr. Cool.
I was wearing sunglasses indoors. Where else could you get away with this but on a college campus? I was set.
Now it was the vendor's turn to do her job.
She did. She gave the nswers we expected. No job required for students. There were no minimum income requirements. The minimum payments would increase if I missed a payment. No one needed to co-sign. After six months the annual percentage rate would increase to 21.9 percent.
The next day we would get all the pitches we would need. I didn't like the idea of filming someone without them knowing. They weren't breaking the law. They were doing their jobs. They were the middlemen. They weren't making the big bucks; the university was, and the banks were.
But college students are falling into serious debt. Getting a credit card on a college campus is all too easy. I had already met two parents whose children had taken their own lives. Their children were in major debt, with debts they racked up in college, via credit cards they had picked up in this very way.
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