Ponzinomics: MLM Fraud and the FTC

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Robert FitzPatrick, president of Pyramid Scheme Alert has written a new book about multi-level marketing and how the FTC allows these pyramid schemes to exist. In PONZINOMICS, the FTC’s Protection of Multi-Level Marketing, he discusses the political interests involved in MLM and the lack of action by FTC officials.

What is “Ponzinomics”? FitzPatrick uses the term to describe the scourge of multi-level marketing, which is nothing more than a pyramid scheme, but has been presented as a viable business opportunity. The government in the United States has gone so far as to protect these criminal enterprises which prey on millions of people each year, using cult-like tactics in furtherance of their pyramid schemes.

The book talks about the lure of the (false) income opportunity and the use of testimonials and the flaunting of wealth to draw people in.  FitzPatrick also discusses the tactics used to draw in new victims, as well as “blaming the victims” when the venture inevitably fails.

I’ll update you here when the book is available.

More on John Oliver’s Takedown of Multi-Level Marketing (MLM)

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john-oliver-multilevel-marketingRobert FitzPatrick, one of the foremost experts on multi-level marketing, published a piece entitled “What John Oliver Didn’t Have Time To Say In His Hilarious Exposé Of Herbalife And MLM” on Seeking Alpha. (register for free to read the whole article) As always, he did a masterful job o flaying out the case against MLMs, which are nothing more than elaborate pyramid schemes set up to look like legitimate businesses.

As of the writing of this post, the YouTube video of the complete episode Multilevel Marketing: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO) had over 5 million views. The program made the point (in a very articulate, yet humorous way) that MLMs are nothing but pyramid schemes.

FitzPatrick expands on the episode: Continue reading

Avon is NOT a “Good” MLM

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avon-mlmLast week I wrote about Good MLMs Versus Bad MLMs. The truth is that there is no such thing as a “good” multi-level marketing company. Oh sure… MLM supporters will tell you that some “direct sales” companies are doing it right, and some are doing it wrong. They will tell you that every company has “bad apples,” but that you have to look past those and see the good people.

These arguments are all false. Companies call themselves “direct selling” in order to direct attention away from the fact that they are recruiting schemes. MLMs are all endless chain recruitment schemes in which 99% of participants are guaranteed to lose money. That is not a business… it is a game rigging in favor of the owners of the company, and participants are guaranteed to lose no matter how hard they try. Promoting this as a “business opportunity” is unethical and immoral.

It therefore follows that if the company and the opportunity are unethical and are not a business, the people promoting the company and opportunity cannot be good. A horrible, deceitful “opportunity” does not change into something right, moral, and ethical, no matter how “good” the person promoting it is. Continue reading

Are All Multi-Level Marketing Companies Pyramid Schemes?

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Recently Robert FitzPatrick of Pyramid Scheme Alert sent out a newsletter that included a discussion of the issue of whether all multi-level marketing companies are pyramid schemes. MLMs are frequently accused of being pyramid schemes, as we see has been the case with Mary Kay Cosmetics, BurnLounge, Herbalife, Medifast, Fortune Hi Tech Marketing, and Usana Health Sciences.

It is common for participants in multilevel marketing schemes to ask whether one MLM or another is also a pyramid scheme. Consumers are hoping that they have found the one legitimate or good multi-level marketing opportunity. The following information comes from Robert FitzPatrick’s newsletter article on the topic: Continue reading

Is Multi-Level Marketing a Legitimate Business Method?

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pyramid-scheme-mlmDefenders of multi-level marketing (MLM) are often heard saying that it’s a legitimate business method! Even government regulators say MLM is legitimate. And it is true that state and federal governments in the United States generally allow multi-level marketing companies to operate with little oversight. This is despite the fact that structurally and operationally, MLMs are nothing more than pyramid schemes.

Oh sure, the MLMs are careful to use lots of window dressing that makes it appear they don’t violate anti-pyramiding laws. There are even lawyers who whore themselves out to tell owners of MLMs how to “stay legal.” And of course, the massive lobbying on behalf of “direct sellers” and multi-level marketing companies ensures that current laws against pyramid schemes will not be enforced, and that no new laws impeding MLMs will be enacted.

Yesterday the Chicago Tribune ran a piece on multi-level marketing, specifically referring to Herbalife and Fortune Hi Tech Marketing. Typical positive MLM talking points were cited: Continue reading

Multi-Level Marketing Companies and Pyramid Schemes

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For decades, muti-level marketing companies like Amway, Mary Kay, Herbalife, Avon, and Usana have fought against being labeled as pyramid schemes. They say that pyramid schemes are illegal, and that their MLM business format is perfectly legal.

My definition of MLMs is a little nuanced. I tend to call them legalized pyramid schemes. What I mean by this is that multi-level marketing companies are indeed pyramid schemes, but our state and federal governments allow them to operate and generally call them legal if they have the right window dressing. Continue reading

Take Shape For Life and Medifast: Court Filing Explains Pyramid Scheme Allegations

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This week, response briefs were due from the defendants in the case of Medifast v. Barry Minkow, Fraud Discovery Institute, Robert FitzPatrick, Tracy Coenen, and Sequence Inc. I was dismissed from Medifast’s SLAPP suit (see information on the lawsuit here), and my brief  in the Medifast appeal can be found here. The brief of Minkow and Bob FitzPatrick was also filed this week, and sheds some light on the allegations that Take Shape For Life (TSFL) and Medifast are offering a pyramid scheme to distributors (called “health coaches”).

The entire brief filed on behalf of Minkow, FDI, and FitzPatrick is found here (10MB file). Below I highlight some of the most relevant (and most interesting) portions, particularly the bits regarding the allegations that Medifast’s multi-level marketing business is a pyramid scheme or endless chain recruitment scheme. Continue reading

Medifast “Take Shape For Life” Lawsuit: Total Vindication for Tracy Coenen in SLAPP Suit

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More than a year ago, Medifast Inc. (NYSE:MED) sued me, my company Sequence Inc, Barry Minkow, his company Fraud Discovery Institute, Robert FitzPatrick, William Lobdell, and an anonymous message board poster for defamation. Barry Minkow and FDI initiated an investigation of the company in 2008, and the rest of us researched the company and contributed our opinions to FDI’s reports on the company and its multi-level marketing division Take Shape For Life (TSFL).

We criticized the company and its MLM business model. We expressed negative opinions about the disclosures Medifast makes about this “business opportunity.” I dared to suggest that Medifast might be a weight loss pyramid scheme.

A year after the first report on the company was released by FDI, Medifast sued us for $270 million, alleging defamation, criminal conspiracy, unfair business practices, and market manipulation. The defendants each filed anti-SLAPP motions, basically saying that Medifast was attempting to silence critics in violation of our First Amendment rights. Continue reading

Can MLM Be a Crime: Canadian Police Bring Criminal Fraud Charges Against Multi-Level Marketing Company Business in Motion

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By Robert FitzPatrick of Pyramid Scheme Alert

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.” Continue reading

The Truth Comes Out in the Medifast Litigation

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UPDATE: On February 17, 2010, Medifast Inc. filed suit in US District Court, Southern District of California, alleging defamation, violation of California Corporations Code, and unfair business practices. On March 29, 2011, Judge Janis Sammartino dismissed all of Medifast’s claims against me in her ruling on my anti-SLAPP motion.

Nearly a year ago, Medifast Inc. (NYSE:MED) filed suit against me and several others, for what it claimed was defamation of its Take Shape For Life division (TSFL). My client initiated an investigation of Medifast more than year prior to the filing of the lawsuit, and published several reports on the company. I was retained as a consultant to do a small bit of analysis. Some of my work was included in reports published by the client, parts of which were reproduced on this blog, along with some of my own analysis of Medifast and TSFL.

TSFL is a multi-level marketing company which peddles weight loss products. It entices new “health coaches” to invest in the system with claims of “healthy body, healthy mind, healthy finances.” I was critical of this business model, as I frequently am with MLMs. Continue reading