(Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) March 23--When Tyler Kessen began his shifts for kgb USA, the company opening a call center near Memphis, he didn't have to go far.
He said he simply sat down at a big corner desk inside his cluttered bedroom in his parents' home in rural Wisconsin and logged onto an Internet portal.
He'd be virtually transported beyond the little room with Green Bay Packers posters on the walls and into contact with strangers who were sending text message questions to 542542. Kessen was one of thousands of "special agents" who searched Google and other databases to answer those questions as quickly as possible.
He remembers some common queries. How can I get rid of an upset stomach? What's the most common name in the world? What's Justin Bieber's phone number?
"Even penis enlargement. I'd get that one a lot. How to enlarge your penis."
That question came through so frequently that the answer was stored in a database that Kessen and his colleagues could access, and he could simply copy it. "For a question like that you'd have to put 'Not medical advice' before your (answer)," Kessen said. "I'd say like, 'penis enlargement surgery is the only proven way. It adds about one inch to your size.'"
A copied answer like that would earn Kessen a nickel. If he wrote his own answer and included the source, he'd earn a dime.
Now 27, Kessen still lives at home in Waukesha County. He said he first learned about kgb USA from TV ads, then went online and took aptitude tests and started scheduling shifts with the company in July 2009.
"Mostly I needed the money. But it was like a fun -- like a side hobby I got into." At the time he worked on the paint line of a local factory. Today he's unemployed.
He'd often watch TV as he worked, sometimes entertainment shows like the Simpsons or Family Guy, or CNN, the better to answer current events questions.
When he first began working for kgb USA, questions constantly flooded in.
But he said they slowed down. He believes that the company was hiring so many "special agents" in the Philippines that there were few questions left over. "It got boring and eventually you kind of move away from it."
One day he tried to log on to the server and discovered he was locked out. He'd gone too long without working for the company.
"I mean it wasn't my fault. They hired so many people you couldn't schedule any shifts."
He sent an email asking to be reinstated, but he said that request was denied.
He said his work for kgb USA ended in September 2011. From start to finish, he never met anyone from the company face-to-face.
One day last year, he checked his bank balance and discovered he had extra money. He didn't know why at first, but he later learned about the company's settlement with the U.S. Department of Labor. The federal government said people like Kessen were employees, not independent contractors, and that kgb had violated laws on record-keeping, overtime and minimum wage. The company settled with the government without admitting or denying the charges.
Many workers received only $20 in the settlement. But Kessen had worked for kgb a long time and his settlement was unusually high: a total of $4,736.30 according to court records. Kessen said that after deductions, he received $3,040.70.
In a recent phone interview, he told a reporter about his rural community and mentioned a local attraction. "It's like park area, like an old history place. Old World Wisconsin. I'll look it up right now." Keys clicked at the other end of the line.
A minute later, he had an answer. "It's an open air museum located near Eagle, Wisconsin. It opened in 1976."
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