In the past, I’ve shared the story of the worst job I ever had. In a lot of ways, it felt like I was part of a pyramid scheme or multi-level marketing operation. I’ve been approached to participate in similar operations since then: once by my veterinarian (?!?) and once by a stranger in a book store. Sometimes you cannot tell a scam is a scam until you see it up close, and then the sunk-cost fallacy will sometimes force you to make a poor choice. GRS reader Bozemblem recently sent me this story of his close encounter with a “business opportunity” that turned out to be a scam.

I’ve been reading Get Rich Slowly for about a year now, and I can definitely relate when you talk about your struggles and triumphs with money. Here’s an experience I recently had.

I currently work and live in one of the most expensive parts of the United States. I’m going to school part-time to get my MS in Computer Science. School is very expensive, even with my employer paying a great deal of the tuition. On top of that I’m getting married next year and I have a tiny amount of credit card debt.  I do a very good job of budgeting my money; I follow it quite closely and it won’t be long before I’ve rid myself of the debt.  However, as you might be able to tell, money is a bit of a concern and so I’m always looking for way to either decrease my spending (which I think I’ve done a good job of so far without going crazy) or increase my income (which is much harder to do, and it is my attempt to do so which is why I’m writing you).

Business opportunity
The other night I was in the grocery store buying some items for my sick fiancee.  Unfortunately, there was only one cashier on duty and I was one of an unusually large number of customers that night.  As I waited in line, a nice gentleman in line behind me struck up a conversation. I spent some time talking to him and eventually we got around to talking about what we did for a living, and I mentioned that I am a software engineer.  Upon hearing that, he got pretty excited and told me that he was a small business owner in need of someone with my skill set.  Seeing this as an opportunity to possible earn some extra money, we exchanged number and he promised to call me the next week to talk about opportunities for some part-time work with his company.

Later that next week he called me, and we set up a time to meet.  He told me to meet him at a hotel the next week; he and some of his fellow small business owners were part of a larger corporation, and he presented this to me as an opportunity to network and meet other people who may be interested in my skills.  Cautiously optimistic, I agreed.

Well tonight I met this individual and had quite the experience.  It slowly started to come together for me, and the saddest part about it is that those were three hours that I will never get back.  Turns out, it was just one large pyramid scheme, and it didn’t matter if I was a software engineer or not.

Pyramid scheme
Here’s how the operation works: you join as an “apprentice” of another member, and you maximize your profits by getting other people to become your “apprentice”.  It was disguised as an “e-commerce” (sorry for the abuse of quotation marks) operation; basically you bought your home goods from this one organization instead of a place like Wal-Mart.  Everyone else you got to sign up and buy those same goods from that organization would gain you some money.  And when they got people to sign up, then you would get a cut of the profits as well.  As soon as I had an opportunity, I left, feeling disgusted and embarrassed.

I however, was the only one.  Of the other “candidates” in the room, only I left.  Everyone else seemed excited.  It’s not hard to see how.  The speaker was very compelling; very funny and personable.  He spoke of living a “lifestyle” as opposed to a life (my first red flag).  Then he talked about stuff like “how would you feel if you could drive a different car…every day of the week!”  He then had us list out which 7 cars we wanted.  Actually, we listed out 6.  Aston Martins, Rolls-Royces, etc…  The 7th car he picked.  And it was the car he drove, and he implied that it was through this program that he was able to afford it.  I wish I could have left right then, but I was sitting near the front and although I hated myself for being there, I couldn’t bear to be rude either.

Your readers should be aware of these operations!  They may sound good, and the money may be real, but it’s all top-heavy.  The ones at the bottom (ie. YOU) won’t be making all that money, but you’ll help someone else do it!  Beware of the charismatic speaker; this guy was really good; going so far as to say “I don’t even care if you join or not”.  Implying, of course, that he’s doing us a favor, despite the fact that he wouldn’t have any money if no one signed up. 

But that one statement was so powerful, and I could tell my fellow attendees were getting sucked in.  That one statement created such a sense of urgency and yet indifference on his part.  He was basically saying that he didn’t need us, that he can find more people, the “right” people.  And he kept talking about us being “candidates”, and he spoke often of a selection process.  I’m not privy to such information, but if I had to guess, I would say that we were all going to be selected. 

Get rich quick!
That and numerous other methods were employed to give us a sense of opportunity, and give us a taste of the rich lifestyle.  He was damn good at his job, and I don’t doubt that he’s made plenty of money off of his considerable talents.  Oh, and don’t forget the $200 registration fee, the $150 insurance costs, and the undisclosed costs of the training materials.  By the way, I only got those figures by pressing my “sponsor” until he finally relented.

It’s easy to see how people can get sucked in.  Everyone else was just like me; needed a little extra cash, pressed for time and anxious to explore any opportunity, we were rip for picking.  I thank goodness that my dad instilled in me a sense of skepticism, else I may have ended up with the rest of them. 

Unfortunately, the road to riches isn’t that easy.  It’s simple, but it isn’t quick and painless.  You just gotta spend less than you earn (by prioritization and reducing the number of unnecessary “wants”), save as much as you can, diversify your investments, and constantly improve the most critical investment, yourself (through taking on a variety of tasks at your job, even if they’re outside of your typical skillset and by continuing your education).  Invest in index funds, open a high-yield savings account, contribute at least enough to your 401(k) to max out your company’s match and fund your IRA; doing so will provide plenty of wealth going forward, just do the math!

A learning experience
There is one positive that came out of my experience with the pyramid scheme.  The speaker preached constantly about how his program is different than a typical job because it gave you “freedom”.  That’s not really true, it just transfers your obligations, and it provides you with a significant amount of risk if you are one of those who chose to do that type of thing full time (and there are those people). 

The bright side for me was that I realized how much I hated the lack of freedom that working in a traditional career offers.  And I’ve always had an idea for a real small business (as opposed to the scheme’s definition of a small business) that I’ve always wanted to open, and I’m going to start working towards that goal.  I’ve been inspired to work to free myself from work, and to get to the point where I won’t be susceptible to schemes like the one I got sucked into tonight.  Perhaps not the motivation these guys were looking for, but that’s what I got out of it!

Bozemblem’s experience is similar to several I’ve had in my own life. I believe he’s right: programs like this can provide income and success to those at the top, or to those who have special luck or motivation. But for most people, they’re actually a net loss. Do you have experience with pyramid schemes or multi-level marketing? Was this experience positive or negative? What advice do you have for others who might be considering this as a way to make money? Checkout line photo by szlea. Conference photo by Jeffrey Beall.

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