Wealthy Affiliate Members Promoting Pyramid Schemes

Last Update: Sep 7, 2019


Over the last several weeks, I have seen several members promoting what are clearly pyramid schemes. As a result, I wrote and posted a review of one of the business opportunities. The bizop was obviously a hazard to your wealth.

Furthermore, I decided to write this post as a means to educate members who are unfamiliar with pyramid schemes as opposed to legitimate network marketing or multi-level marketing (MLM) companies.

What is a pyramid scheme

The current definition arose from a 1975 court case "FTC vs. Koscot Interplanetary," an MLM cosmetics company. The court created what was called the Koscot Pyramid Test. The Koscot Test has the following four parts:

(1) Payment of money to the company;
(2) The participant receives the right to sell a product (or service);
(3) The participant receives compensation for recruiting others into the program;
(4) The compensation is unrelated to the sale of products (or services) to the ultimate user.

The FTC and state regulators have applied the Koscot Test to every suspected pyramid scheme since then.

Industry has been pushing Congress to write legislation defining pyramid schemes (beneficial to industry). Left to the states, a legal business in one state could be deemed illegal in another.

However, consumer groups have been opposed to industry efforts to loosen the rules. The groups feel the legislation undermines the FTC’s ability to protect consumers from pyramid schemes.

U.S. legislation efforts to define pyramid schemes

There is no U.S. federal statute that defines pyramid schemes or makes them illegal.

In 2016, a group of U.S. lawmakers (28 co-sponsors) wrote and sponsored a House of Representatives bill H.R. 5230 – Anti-Pyramid Promotional Scheme Act of 2016 that would finally define what a pyramid scheme is at the federal level. The most important part of this legislation is that it defines internal consumption. This meant customers who are also distributors or members would be considered “consumers.”

Considering members as consumers would enable MLM companies to develop compensation plans based on the purchase and consumption of products by downline distributors rather than retail sales to third persons. This would negate part of the "Amway" rule regarding the requirement that 70% of distributor sales had to be made to retail customers. Otherwise, the distributors were not eligible for Amway performance bonuses.

H.R. 5230 died without passing when the 114th session of Congress ended.

However, H.R. 5230 was replaced by H.R. 3409 Anti-Pyramid Promotional Scheme Act of 2017 initiated during the 115th session of Congress. It too was cleared from the books when the 115th session ended January 2019.

However, the FTC litigates what they consider to be illegal pyramid schemes using other statutes, mostly related to fraud. Recently, the FTC shut down MOBE through the federal court system as a fraudulent business education program. The FTC alleged that MOBE representatives falsely claimed their business education program would enable people to start their own online businesses and earn substantial income.

Clearly, the FTC makes a distinction between legitimate MLM companies and those that cross over into being pyramid schemes based on the Koscot Test.

Critics may not like the MLM business model because of abusive practices. You can say, they are awful, but lawful.

What is the MLM business model?

Corporate business models define howcompanies operate. Among other things, the business model includes marketing, distribution, and revenue models. Part of their marketing strategy is to define how they will distribute its products.

A company may choose the MLM business model for several reasons. First of all, it reduces cost risk by transferring some selling, general and administrative (SGA) costs to the independent distributors. Independent distributors are responsible for recruiting, training, motivating, and supporting their sales forces with some oversight from the corporation. Lack of oversight got Herbalife into big trouble with the FTC.

Briefly, the revenue model includes the pricing model, which consists of price details and structure. Since SGA responsibilites and associated costs have been moved into the independent distributor network, The product unit costs should be lower since they do not include SGA costs. This enables the company to pay the multi-level/downline commissions.

This is where the FTC comes in. The FTC looks at MLM company compensation plans. MLM compensation plans are convoluted to say the least. However, over the years, the FTC has focuse on the compensation plans that tend to mask money games.or be abused.

The FTC has shown that they do not like matrix plans, particularly those that go beyond four or five levels. A non-MLM corporate sales organizational chart may show four or five levels (branch, division, state, regional, and national). Revenue models and cost structure normally won't support distributor payments beyond the fifth level.

What are the pyramid scheme and scam warning signs?

Business opportunities may be scams if one or more of the following warning signs are present.

  • Promotional material that focuses on getting rich quick or no effort on your part (done-for-you).
  • No selling on your part or no emphasis on selling to retail customers.
  • Compensation plans based on a matrix beyond 5 levels including exaggerated claims of POTENTIAL income.
  • Compensation based on recruiting new members.
  • No retail products available for sale to the public or consumers.
  • There must be a public demand for products. The classic example is the ACN videophone. The only demand was from the ACN distributors.
  • Company has no operating history. New companies in pre-launch are high risk.
  • Requirement to buy expensive products or sales materials including replicated websites or sales funnels.
  • Lack of transparency as to the owners or no evidence of appropriate company registration with government units.

Please share your experience with pyramid schemes and scams.

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Recent Comments


I've had a couple of run in's with these types of companies over the years and sadly it didn't really go well for me. The last one was a nutrition company and while we did see some friends succeed high in the business there were many of us not doing the same. My big problem with the model is at the end of the day they will swear up and down that it's your company n such but that's not the case at all. You still end up working for that company but independently. Also, think of it this way you're supposed to recruit inexperienced salespeople while being inexperienced yourself and competing for the same thing hoping to land a few incredible salespeople. They will never say your selling or recruiting yet turn around and promote just that. I would only suggest going to a few meetings without the intention of signing up but only for thoughtful observation. Thanks for posting this!

Thanks for sharing your experience, Nate. Companies try to convince their members that they are independent. Yet, members are tied to companies via the distributor agreement as well as the company oversight rules. Nutrition and supplement products are tricky because of the restrictions on making claims of health benefits from consuming the company products.

WA, unlike MLM, is much more flexible in how I can promote and grow my business online. Nevermind the endless hours of meetings aka recruitment you face in MLM. They become very cult-like.

Helpful post Glen thanks

Currently reviewing quite few mlms and many of them are borderline pyrmaid schemes.

Was looking at one last night in yet again the health and wellness industry. They only have a total of 24 products and a 15ml face cream is $99!

I can think the only person buying this are people in the scheme. I'm suprised by how many of these companies that there are.

There is a report produced for the FTC that I have a link to and use in some of my reviews. It found that less than 1% of participants in mlm's actually make a profit.

Beauty product prices have a huge range. Neiman Marcus sells Guerlain Orchidée Impériale face cream.for $460 (1.6 ounces).

You are probably referring to Dr. JM Taylor's MLM book (476 pages), which chapter 7 is on the FTC website.

The book is in pdf format at https://www.mlmwatch.org/01General/mlm_unmasked_2017.pdf

Thats the one Glen. I'll be honest I've only read the chapter on the FTC website. That was enough for me!

What a great post!!!
It's really good to help people understand what a pyramid sheme is, because maybe they don't realize they're in a bad way and maybe because of your very good explanation they will return on a more virtuous path.

Thanks for this nice update

Thank you so much, Ingrid. I expect that the people who need to read this won't.

Thanks for the update and detailed explanation.
Appreciate your effort.
All the best and success to you.

You are welcome, Chang.

Bookmarking this to read it more carefully later.

Thanks, there is lots to unpack in the post.

Yes I am now starting to read it slowly there is lots of helpful and educational information.

I was recruited by a friend to join a pyramid scheme thank God I got out before losing too much money.

She lost a lot of money when the pyramid collapsed.

Sorry to hear that. Unfortunately, that is the typical outcome.

Thank you for this information. I knew what MLM meant but not really the how it worked. I joined a company and left because it was weird. Site users always showed 0. Stats were always 0, until I asked why then 4, 2 & 2 appeared. They also stayed the same regardless of the dates put in. It was hard work finding information to use from the admin side, I kept going round in circles and back to the same point, regardless of what I clicked on.
Asking about more information for a post I was doing I was sent links but he pages that popped up had someone else's name on them. Had I not noticed someone else would have benefited from the traffic created.
That was the final straw. I cancelled the account, only to find that didn't work either. I asked them to cancel it and was sent instructions that were exactly the steps I followed. They finally did it after I pointed out that was yet another thing that didn't work.
Was very strange.

You are welcome, Linda. Yes, that sounds strange. I wonder what they are doing.

No idea but escape seemed a good idea.

Thank you Glen,
A well-researched topic we can all learn.
I did join Herbalife many years ago & did not stay long as I believed as an MLM it was not for me.


Thank you for sharing, Denis. You pointed out why MLM companies try to front-load their new members with inventory, marketing tools, and seminars/rallies. They want to get all they can out of a new member before they leave.

Thanks for sharing this important info.

You are welcome, Carol.

Iit's such a fine line. I was contacted twice for schemes that were definitely pyramids. However, I didn't get involved. I was, however, involved in a MLM company for 10 years. I loved the company and the products, though it was hard work moving forward. I finally had to quit because the MLM was taking time I needed for my shop.

I think we have a good company here with WA, and hope all members realize that.

Yes, we have a good company here with WA.

Unfortunately, it can be tough competing against the promises from the get-rich-quick crowd.

Very true. That's one reason we write reviews.

I've been doing a good amount of research on MLMs (and I was in one or two...or 3 in my time - lol) and gosh, they are so borderline pyramid schemes. Every one of them.

But they all sneak in the legal area because they have products they can sell retail to people.

However most of the customers are the people in the MLM because who wants to buy products for 2x the amount they normally cost? Only the people in the MLM!

Anyway, this isn't to knock anyone who's a distributor. I get it. I got caught up in it too. And I know they're legal. (Though many of them get sued for being pyramid schemes.)

I'm not totally sure which companies you are referring to here that are legit pyramid schemes. I'd love to know because I have some suspicions...

- Christina

I won't mention any company names because I only looked at a couple of them.

However, I am planning on reviewing and writing more about them for my website.

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