Peter Silverman (PHD 1977) has been tracking down swindlers for more than 20 years. Part detective, part superman to the city’s scammed, his Toronto-based Citytv segment – Silverman Helps – ran until 2008. (Viewers wrote in about companies that had bilked them; Silverman often succeeded in getting their money back.) He has since moved to Newstalk 1010; Saturdays from 11 a.m. to noon, he coaches callers on how to fight ripoffs. Lisa Bryn Rundle talks with him.
What got you into this line of work?
Moses Znaimer, then president of Citytv, decided that I was too lefty-pinko to be a business reporter. He made it clear that I was either going to do it or I was gone.
You were bullied into being the guy who stands up to bullies.
I was! Doing the business beat, you got freebies all over the place! And then all of a sudden I’m out there grubbing around, negotiating with people you’d rather shoot.
What skills does it take?
Keeping your temper. Our motto was: restitution, not vengeance. Still, aside from being a foreign correspondent in a war, it was the most dangerous job in the newsroom.
Speaking of which, you were famously attacked by an optician.
I was attacked by a lot of people. Once a guy came after me with a bulldozer. My job was to take the first hit because the cameraman has a 180-degree blind spot and his eye is up against the lens.
Who would you say was the lowdown-dirtiest scam artist you ever encountered?
Unregistered used-car dealers. And renovators and contractors. But the worst was a [now-defunct] Toronto moving and storage company. We had 210 complaints about them. Once they got your stuff, they’d hold it hostage and charge huge fees. Not only that, they were selling the stuff off the back of the trucks. We went in there with bolt cutters. The owner actually tried to run down my cameraman.
Did you ever worry someone would come after you and your family?
Absolutely. There was a gentleman who did. We had a long relationship and none of it good – he was very bright and very violent.
How does your radio show compare to your TV show?
It’s completely different. The best I can do is advise people and pass their complaints on…. I’m still helping people but with no staff, nowhere near to the degree I was able to before.
What does doing this work do to your faith in human beings?
There are a lot of very good people out there, and you meet as many of them as the bad guys. And you’re contributing to the community and that feels pretty great…. But I don’t think anybody else is taking it up. It’s expensive; that’s why we were closed down.
Has anyone ever tried to scam you?
Yes! Doing the work probably makes you less immune! You think: They’re not going to do this to me – I’m Silverman!