The Fine Line Between Legitimate Businesses and Pyramid Schemes

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chicagotribuneBy Gregory Karp

Companies say sellers can make six-figure salaries; critics call multilevel marketing firms a scam

Controversy is again casting a shadow over the multilevel marketing industry, as nutritional supplement company Herbalife Inc., which has thousands of distributors in the Chicago region, has been publicly called a pyramid scheme by a prominent investor — an allegation the company vigorously denies.

Meanwhile, a different multilevel marketer, Fortune Hi-Tech Marketing, was shut down in recent weeks after a lawsuit was brought by regulators and several states, including Illinois, alleging the company scammed consumers out of $169 million. The scheme affected an estimated 100,000 Americans, including some in Chicago, where it targeted Spanish-speaking consumers, the Federal Trade Commission alleged.

Most people outside the industry might have only a vague notion about multilevel marketing, also called network marketing and direct selling. It often involves personal sales of cosmetics, wellness products or home decor items — or as critics flippantly call it, “pills, potions and lotions” — usually sold through product parties hosted by friends or relatives.

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Tracy Coenen, a forensic accountant and fraud investigator with Sequence Inc. in Chicago and Milwaukee, is author of the Fraud Files Blog. She is also a critic.

“Multilevel marketing companies are pyramid schemes that the government allows to operate,” said Coenen. “The only difference is that Herbalife, or any multilevel marketing company, has a tangible product that they use to make their pyramid appear legitimate.”

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In fact, 88 percent of Herbalife distributors earned no commissions in 2012, according to company numbers. That excludes potential profits distributors might have earned on sales of products to others, but it also excludes sales expenses distributors incur, figures Herbalife says it doesn’t have.

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But even the vast majority of those who are sales “leaders” at Herbalife, the top 20 percent of sellers, don’t earn enough to live. Last year, more than half of the 82,464 sales leaders earned $1,000 or less in commissions for the whole year, according to Herbalife.

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