|Can MLM Be a Crime?|
Canadian Police Bring Criminal Fraud Charges against Multi-Level Marketing Company, "Business in Motion"
Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in the province of Manitoba in central Canada have brought criminal fraud charges against a multi-level marketing company that had been large, very visible and quite popular in Canada. The target of the fraud charges also include 12 consumers who had been active recruiters. The company, called Business in Motion (BIM), sold a package of travel discounts, and it offered each new salesperson the right to recruit other salespeople. Like most MLMs, no payments were offered directly for recruiting, but only when a recruit "purchased" a product or sold one. As in some other MLMs, the salespeople were also purchasers of the product they sold. As others joined and "purchases," were made, rewards accrued to those on the upper levels of the recruiting chain. As in all other MLMs, the recruitment chain was said to be endless and the opportunity "unlimited."
Criminal prosecution of MLMs is relatively rare but it is a jeopardy to all such companies and all consumers who join them. Pyramid Scheme Alert, president Robert FitzPatrick served as expert witness in two cases where the presidents of the MLM companies were later prosecuted for criminal fraud and are now in prison. These include International Heritage Inc., which had over 140,000 distributors, and Renaissance, the Tax People. In most other cases, the schemes are pursued in civil court by regulators, resulting in minor fines and often with the schemes' leaders continuing deceptive practices or setting up new scams under different names.
Private citizens have also charged that MLMs are engaging in crimes. The most recent case is the consumer class action lawsuit against the largest of all MLMs, Amway. The suit charges Amway with violating laws against racketeering and mail and wire fraud.
The prosecution of BIM should, therefore, serve as a sober notice to any consumer of the risks of joining or recruiting for a multi-level marketing company. Selling a product does not necessarily make the scheme legal. BIM sold one. Technically not paying rewards for recruiting, but only after a "purchase" occurs does not assure legality. BIM claimed all its rewards were tied to product sales. Previous lack of prosecution or claims of legality by the company are no protection against prosecution. BIM made this claim on national TV, daring the news media to prove BIM was a pyramid scheme and pointing out the absence of prosecution by the Canadian government. Business in Motion held public recruitment meetings in hotels all over Canada for years, advertised with billboards and, for a time, had thousands of satisfied and loyal supporters.
The BIM prosecution shows that not only can a scheme be charged with illegality even when these technicalities are met, but it could also be charged with criminal fraud. If you are a recruiter, you could also be charged, as about a dozen of BIM's promoters now have been.
Whistle blowers alerted the media and the government that something was wrong with BIM several years ago. As a result of these consumer actions, Business in Motion, became the subject of a national television news expos� in 2009, in which Pyramid Scheme Alert president, Robert FitzPatrick, went undercover with the news producers to attend a recruitment meeting with hidden cameras and microphones. He was then interviewed on the news show to explain the scheme's deceptive income promise and pyramid business model. The company president, Alan Kippax, now charged by police with criminal fraud, aggressively defended BIM on the news show, asserting that BIM was perfectly legal and claimed that his main proof of legality was that the company had never been prosecuted.
The news program also showed video of local police arresting Canadian consumer advocate, David Thornton, founder of crimebustersnow.com, while he peacefully and legally protested the BIM scheme and warned consumers that it was fraudulent. He was quickly released without charges, raising the obvious prospect that local police were protecting the BIM recruitment meeting, not the public. BIM and its president Alan Kippax had earlier sued Thornton for $10 million claiming defamation for calling the company a pyramid scheme. Thornton defended himself in court without an attorney and won the case.
The news program also showed how the Canadian Competition Bureau, equivalent to the US Federal Trade Commission, had remained silent for years in the face of mounting evidence of BIM fraud. The Competition Bureau still has not prosecuted the scheme and never issued even a warning to consumers.
In another infamous failure of the Canadian Competition Bureau to act against a scheme that later was charged with criminal fraud, about 1,000 family farmers were lured into a pigeon-breeding Ponzi scheme. Now, the founder of that scheme, called Pigeon King International, has also been arrested by police and charged with criminal fraud. Whistle-blowers in Canada, including a former employee and consumer advocate, Dave Thornton of Crimebustersnow.com analyzed and warned about the fraud. A detailed account of the scheme's deceptions were published in farming trade magazines.
Yet, In response to a whistle-blower letter that Pigeon King was a fraud that would ruin family farms, one official from the Competition Bureau wrote that even if it were a fraud, Canada's anti-pyramid scheme law did not cover it, and it therefore might be perfectly legal in Canada.
He wrote, "the business practices of Pigeon King International do not appear to meet the definition of a "scheme of pyramid selling" which must first and foremost meet the definition of a "multi-level marketing plan" as stated in section 55. (1) of the Act. I have taken the liberty to forward your concerns to the Ontario Provincial Police Anti Rackets Section."
The Canadian Competition Bureau allowed the scheme to continue. Only after Pigeon King International went bankrupt, largely due to negative publiciity, did the Canadian regional and national police arrest the scheme's founder and promoter, Arlan Galbraith.
Related articles on the Pyramid Scheme Alert website about Business in Motion:
End of Year/Decade Analysis
The Decade of the Pyramid Scheme, by Robert L. FitzPatrick, Pres. of Pyramid Scheme Alert
2001 - 2010 was the "Decade of the Pyramid Scheme." Pyramid schemes dominated the news, changed our economy and nearly destroyed it. Pyramid schemes evolved into new forms that regulators appear helpless or unwilling to prevent or even investigate. Pyramid schemes are at the center of our lives and millions of people now stake their last hopes on them.
The aspect that is central to all pyramid schemes is the promise of rewards that depend upon an unending recruitment of new participants. The financial Ponzi schemes that are in the news every day are pyramid schemes. The introduction of later investors' is needed to fulfill promises to earlier investors, etc.
- The pyramid scheme is now seen by millions of people, not as a scourge and a trap, but, in desperation, as maybe, just maybe, their last best chance, if they can just "get in early."
- The "money transfer" (my gain, your loss, too bad for you, but that's the way it is now) has replaced "exchange of value", the previous foundation of our business system.
- And as billions pour into scam businesses, a huge treasury of ill-gotten gains is siphoned into the government to prevent law enforcement. Regulators are being transformed from representatives of the public to protectors of pyramids.
- No longer hiding from view, pyramid schemes now advertise on national television, tout their own celebrity spokesmen, and threaten to sue whistle-blowers for "defamation." (the lawsuits are without merit, but they can potentially ruin the whistle-blower with burdensome legal fees.) Virtually every pyramid selling scheme whistle-blower in the USA and Canada has now been sued by MLM schemes.
Other key aspects:
- The base of investors/participants/salespeople must always expand. This requirement, of course, is impossible to fulfill, so the schemes will either collapse totally all at once or they will churn out the losers in the bottom ranks every year and replace them with new hopefuls, year by year. The pyramid scheme is the ultimate denier of limits of growth and markets. The "opportunity" is said to be always "unlimited." The promise is never qualified by market limits or saturation factors.
- All Pyramid Schemes cause harm and loss. Either by total or continuous collapse, the majority of all investor/participants will always fail to gain the promised rewards. The great majority of participants cannot gain the promised rewards because the majority will always be at or near the bottom. The losses will be in money, or wasted time, effort and hopes, that could have been applied productively.
- Pyramid Schemes must always deceive. Pyramids differ from structured and sustainable enterprises by claiming each new investor can earn what those at the top do, while concealing the impossibility of such a promise. Revenue is, therefore, gained with the use of a false promise. Some financial pyramids claim the promised rewards come from stock trades, which are not made. The actual source is later investors' money. Others claim they are "direct selling" when, in fact, the advertised big incomes depend on recruiting more salespeople, not personal "direct" selling. The vital source of rewards is the new salespeople's investments, including their labor, time, fees and personal purchases. Some pyramids claim the rewards are "gifts" or commissions when in reality the money is a transfer from payments by other investors (salespeople/participants). The "gifts" and "purchases" are made with an expectation of reward, based on more "givers" and "purchases."
- The Pyramid Scheme Decade, 2001 - 2010, officially began with an attorney whose law firm represented the Amway Corporation -- Timothy Muris by name -- being appointed by President George W. Bush to the chairmanship of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC is the agency that is supposed to keep pyramid schemes, which are treated as "unfair and deceptive trade practices," out of the marketplace. Specifically, the FTC is supposed to watch over Amway and other multi-level marketing companies to prevent them from running pyramid schemes. It even posts a warning on its website about all multi-level marketing companies. It warns: "Not all multilevel marketing plans are legitimate. Some are pyramid schemes."
- Placing an individual with professional ties to the very company and type of company he is supposed to regulate and enforce the law upon would normally be a conflict of interest. But Amway was among the top contributors to the Bush candidacy and his political party. Pyramid selling schemes are now big business and, using pyramid-based profits, they have purchased a commanding seat at the political table. See how much influence the MLM industry has purchased in Washington.
- The pyramid industry even introduced its own bill in Congress in 2003. Called HR 1220, the bill would have eliminated all requirements for retail selling, allowing all MLMs to operate as closed systems unrelated to free market forces and rules. All sponsors of the bill were Republicans - the main recipients of pyramid industry contributions - and some were part of what one writer called the "Amway Caucus," including several Congress members who were Amway distributors and one whose district included Amway headquarters. Under terms of the bill, multi-level marketing would be exempt from the definition of a pyramid scheme as long as payments and reward money were laundered through any kind of product, sold at any price. The bill did not make it out of committee, perhaps because of a little diversion called the Iraq War, followed by the Great Recession.
- The Amway-related appointment, predictably, was followed by a decade of government silence and inaction regarding pyramid selling schemes. Mr. Muris went on from the FTC chairmanship to do lobbying work for the MLM industry, as did two former FTC Directors of Consumer Protection, one working specifically on behalf of Amway. Pyramid Schemes now control the regulatory agencies, just as we learned that banks, Wall Street and insurance companies do.
- Government inaction led, also predictably, to a dramatic growth of pyramid schemes in the direct selling field. MLM "profits" and recruiting soared. Even when the stock market crashed in 2007 and 2008, and the Recession dramatically cut sales, most of the pyramid selling stocks boomed. Wall Street has come to love Pyramid Schemes that plunder Main Street.
- Pyramid "sales" also exploded during the Recession. As unemployment worsened, millions more people turned in desperation to MLM's endless chain "income promise." Chasing the income promise meant paying sign up fees, buying more MLM products and subscribing to lead programs and "motivation" tools. Consumers viewed government silence as official endorsement of the MLM schemes' legality and truthfulness. Pyramids are Recession proof - for the promoters - but devastating for those already in financial distress.
- The great majority of all consumers who were lured by MLM promises during this decade lost savings, increased debt and squandered months or years of time chasing the MLM promise of sustainable income to replace lost jobs, reduced wages or ruined home values. Billions of dollars passed from the hands of millions of consumers into the pockets of the top levels of recruiters and the coffers of MLM companies. Poverty increased; the gap between rich and poor increased; entrepreneurship declined as millions lost money and hope in "home-based business" and "self-employment." Pyramid scheme are a significant factor in our economy now -- all of it negative.
- The pyramid-friendly policy in the USA is reflected also in Canada, resulting in an epidemic of frauds in North America, many of which are then exported to other countries. Canadian anti-fraud laws that cover pyramid schemes are routinely not enforced. Instead, Canada's Competition Bureau oversees
pyramid schemes, doing little more than require the schemes to post "average" incomes. The disclosures do little to stop "endless chain" fraud and can misleadingly give the impression that the "average" person actually earns a "income" when, in fact, the vast majority suffer net losses.
Collapse and Fraud Suits Mark the Pyramid Decade's End
On Wall Street, the pyramid scheme decade ended with the tragic collapse of the Bernard Madoff hedge fund and the exposure of many such Ponzi scams. On Main Street, the pyramid decade ended in 2010 with Amway agreeing to pay a historic $150 million fraud settlement, the largest in history against a MLM scheme (agreed upon by Amway, but not yet court approved). Consumers accused Amway of criminal acts, of running a pyramid scheme, of deceiving and impoverishing hundreds of thousands of people - the very crimes that the FTC was supposed to have prevented or prosecuted. During the decade, consumer victims also sued other MLM companies, and another fraud suit has been brought against Amway in Canada.
The role of multi-level marketing in the Pyramid Decade is central and insidious. MLM is the only "industry" based upon the "endless chain" model and the only one that openly and aggressively promotes the concept of pyramiding for profit. It is the leading force toward legalizing pyramid schemes as "businesses." It is the major voice seeking to persuade and mold public opinion. Millions of Americans now attend MLM seminars and rallies to hear about the miracle of "unlimited income" that is based on the "endless chain." Today, after a decade of increasing pyramid corruption, the rest of the economy is looking more and more like MLM, writ even larger.
- MLMs debased "direct selling", a once proud and legitimate form of work, into pyramid recruiting. Correspondingly, many of our banks, once trusted keepers of our life's savings, devolved into financial Ponzi schemes. In this decade banks kited up real estate values and then sold off billions in doomed mortgages to their "downline" (investors, foreign banks, pension funds)
- MLMs hit the "failing" consumers a second time with even higher losses by selling them expensive marketing and training "tools" that promise success. Correspondingly, Ponzi bankers slammed consumers twice also. After selling them "exploding" mortgages they hit their victims again with foreclosures, gaining fees and profits from "flipping" the properties taken from the "failed" homeowners.
- Like MLMs that soared and benefited from unemployment while other legitimate sales businesses declined in the Great Recession, Wall Street has boomed at the expense of its "downline", Main Street. Big Corporate profits are at record high levels, as unemployment remains at 10% and millions are losing their homes to foreclosures. Bonuses for Wall Street managers reached record levels, while incomes and salaries on Main Street are stagnant or declining.
- And just as after Amway's and MLM's influence led to lax regulation and "revolving door" relationships between MLM and the FTC, the SEC, which was supposed to watchdog Wall Street, was revealed as shamefully aligned with Wall Street. SEC ignored repeated whistle-blowing warnings about Bernard Madoff. Madoff's fraudulent "hedge fund" soon became the nation's largest before it catastrophically collapsed.
- MLMs also mirror the "bailout" era. MLMs are "bailed out" year after year by the government's allowing them to recruit new investors to replace the "losers." The losses caused by the MLM schemes are always transferred or outsourced to the next group of recruits. Similarly, the government's bailouts of Wall Street transferred the costs of those bailouts to a similar "downline", our grandchildren!
Signs of Change
Yet, the era of fraud, cover-ups and disguises, political influence-buying and the corruption of regulators may, like the schemes themselves, be reaching a saturation point.
- The lawsuit victory of consumers in the Amway fraud case may mean that more suits against similar schemes are coming.
- The collapse of the Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme (read the shocking story of Madoff whistle-blower Harry Markopolos in his book, "No One Would Listen") has opened eyes.
- The formation of a new consumer "financial" protection bureau being organized by Elizabeth Warren may extend its coverage to MLM as purveyors of bogus financial products, i.e., business opportunity schemes.
- Just as satirists Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert have done so much to expose media and marketing flim-flam and political lies, the MLM industry is now becoming a target of humorists and satirists. See the hilarious treatment MLM received at the hands of world-famous satirists, Penn & Teller, Steven Colbert, and the TV series, The Office and King of Queens. Several movies are also now out that debunk the folly and fraud of multi-level marketing. Ridicule and satire may do even more than investigations and whistle-blowing.
What You Can Do
- Sign the Petition for proper law enforcement
- Contact us with your story about MLM scams.
- Read the ground-breaking report, "The Main Street Bubble" which documents how MLMs operate and how they have corrupted our Federal Trade Commission. Send an email with the words "Main Street Bubble" in the subject area. It will be emailed back to you promptly at no charge.
- Help with our legal defenses by making a donation.
Best wishes to all for a successful 2011. I welcome your comments or questions.
Robert L. FitzPatrick
|Donations Make It Possible
Pyramid Scheme Alert is all-volunteer and non-profit, but it still has many costs to maintain its website, to help with legal defense, publicize its research and analysis and to assist thousands of individuals worldwide. PSA's costs are covered by contributions from courageous private citizens. You can support PSA's work by making a donation
|No More Silence: Take Action
Over the last eight years, Pyramid and Ponzi schemes have grown and spread. The Internet is now choked with "cash gifting" scams and "matrix selling" frauds. Pyramid selling scams have multiplied and now boast that the Recession will bring them more desperate "recruits." The false promise of income from an "endless chain" recruitment scheme is the lure of these multi-level marketing scams. Many of the "job" and "business opportunity" solicitations on the Internet are nothing more than pyramid schemes, flim-flam frauds.
Consumers now have a way to fight back. A petition for stronger regulation is being gathered on the Pyramid Scheme Alert Website.