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Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman inspired the creation of another book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong.
Dave Lieber

Dave Lieber
Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman inspired the creation of another book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong.
This is my 18th year as The Watchdog, and I knew on the very first day that it would not work out.
Even before a debut column appeared, I was inundated with letters from readers needing help with seemingly unsolvable problems.
It quickly became clear that with two columns a week, I could not fix the world’s problems. Something had to give.
That’s how I came up with the idea of Watchdog Nation, a consumer rights movement that signifies the power you have to protect yourself and your family. You learn what strings to pull and buttons to push when you want something done.
Members of Watchdog Nation know how to protect their privacy, lower their property tax, hire a roofer and find a good electricity company. They know how to contact a CEO with a complaint. They know how to avoid scammers and bad companies.
How do you join? Easy. If you’re reading this, consider yourself a member. There’s no dues or initiation. You simply believe in the basic philosophy of checking everything and everybody out before you let them into your life. God bless the internet.
The inspiration that led to the creation of Watchdog Nation is somewhat surprising. I trace its ancestral roots to the radical left Yippies movement that flourished in the late 1960s and early 1970s — and specifically to one very unorthodox book.
In 1971, when I was 14, I bought a copy of Yippie co-founder Abbie Hoffman’s guide called Steal This Book. It was a handbook for revolutionaries, a book that definitely would be on today’s banned list of books in school libraries.
It was subversive, comedic and creative — traits I admire. It wasn’t so much the specific ideas in the book, which were often criminal then and outdated now. It was the tone that left an impression on me and that I’d call upon 34 years later when starting my own movement.
Both Hoffman and The Watchdog target “the man.” But our definitions of that were different. Hoffman wanted to overthrow the system. I wanted a grandmother to get her rightful refund from Atmos Energy.
Hoffman wanted to trick people to get free stuff. I wanted TXU Energy to get its billing practices straight.
We both had manifestos. Here’s a portion of mine from the early pages of my award-winning book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong:
“We, the members of Watchdog Nation, do everything in our power to defend ourselves and help others when businesses and scammers do us wrong.
“We combat unfairness and unethical behavior by using every resource at our command in a fair and ethical way to prove that in the end, the good guys win.”
The Yippie version includes this: “Our new society is not about the power of a few men but the rights of all humans, animals and plants to play out their natural roles in harmony. We will build our communities to reflect the beauty inside us.”
Hoffman’s book showed how to get free food by crashing a wedding or bar mitzvah: “You naturally have to disguise yourself to look straight. [Make] remarks such as ‘I’m Marvin’s cousin,’ or learning the bride’s name, ‘Gee, Dorothy looks marvelous’ are great.”
We both take on the phone company but in different ways.
Hoffman: At pay phones, “you can make a local 10 cent call for two cents by spitting on the pennies and dropping them in the nickel slot. As soon as they are about to hit the trigger mechanism, bang the coin-return button.”
My way: I aimed bigger. Almost every week for the past 18 years, I’ve forwarded complaints to AT&T. It got so bad that several years ago I had a one-on-one meeting with AT&T’s chief executive officer to discuss my reporting of the mega-corps’ poor customer service.
Hoffman never got on the inside, but he was there with me in spirit when I handed Randall Stephenson a red binder filled with the most recent complaints.
“Make it stop,” I pleaded, before asking, “Do you want me to send the complaints to the Federal Communications Commission or to you, sir?” He agreed to take them.
To Hoffman, corporate chiefs were capitalist villains.
But in Watchdog Nation, a CEO can be your best advocate. If you can locate them through a web search, any problem handed down from the top office usually gets fixed immediately.
Hoffman on the U.S. Postal Service: “When mailing to the same city, address the envelope or package to yourself and put the name of the person you are sending it to where the return address generally goes. Mail it without postage and it will be ‘returned’ to the sender. Because almost all letters are machine processed, any stamp that is the correct size will pass.” He suggested Easter Seals stamps, which had no value.
My way: I worked with USPS’ Southwest Regional Vice President Ellis Burgoyne, who used my newspaper reports about bad service to motivate his workers to do a better job. “Do you want to be in the newspaper?” he harangued them. They improved their delivery scores. And when I went back and surveyed my 100 most recent postal complaints, 95 of them were satisfied.
Hoffman was the scammer. In contrast, I tried to chase the scammer off, whether it was an appliance repair man who used Craigslist to find unsuspecting victims or the company offering fake auto warranties in an endless stream of illegal spam calls.
The biggest difference between Hoffman’s screed and my version of a revolutionary guidebook comes down to the basic tool of Watchdog Nation. He didn’t have it, but we do.
Hoffman didn’t have computers, smartphones, the internet or social media. The internet of his day was the community bulletin board found in hippie hangouts. The push pin was like their version of the ENTER button.
In Watchdog Nation, all that radical energy is aimed at solving the problem. And the best way to solve a problem is to learn about it through web searching.
Bank problem? Find the address of the regulator.
Expensive cellphone/internet/TV bill? Tell them about competing deals and renegotiate your bill.
Need a new roof? Contact the North Texas Roofing Contractors Association.
Angry about your property tax? Learn how to protest both the appraisal and the tax rate.
Hoffman would be standing outside a government building, splashing red paint on the walls and chanting hateful slogans.
We’d use the Texas open records law to learn what’s going on inside that building.
Sometimes it takes a radical stance to get things done, but you don’t have to act like one of the nation’s most infamous radicals to be a modern-day smart consumer.
Power to the people!
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DAVE LIEBER is The Dallas Morning News’ The Watchdog investigative columnist.

Dave Lieber
The Watchdog Desk at The Dallas Morning News works for you to shine light on questionable practices in business and government. We welcome your story ideas and tips.
Contact The Watchdog
Call: 214-977-2952
Write: Dave Lieber, P.O. Box 655237, Dallas, TX 75265
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