Legitimate businesses or pyramid schemes?

Chicago Tribune

Controversy is again casting a shadow over the multilevel marketing industry, as nutritional supplement company Herbalife Inc. 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 alleging the company scammed consumers out of $169 million. The scheme affected an estimated 100,000 Americans, and some Spanish-speaking consumers were targeted, 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.

For sellers, the companies offer the appeal of starting a business on the cheap with little training, working from home and being their own boss, if only for part-time money. Some might recruit friends and family to become sellers, which augments their own commissions and gives them a shot at the six-figure compensation many such marketing companies tout but few distributors attain.

The largest multilevel marketing companies, often known as MLMs, are household names: Avon, Mary Kay, Pampered Chef and Amway. MLMs have annual sales of about $30 billion, with about 16 million people in the United States selling their products, according to the industry group Direct Selling Association, which represents these firms and others.

The recent controversies might raise the question: What’s the difference between a legitimate multilevel marketing company and an illegal pyramid scheme, in which only people who get in first — at the top of the pyramid-like structure — make money and everyone else is duped?

The harshest critics maintain there is no difference, that there’s no such thing as a legitimate MLM and that the industry’s secrets stay safe because of a cultlike mentality and a blind eye of regulators.

Jon M. Taylor, who was once a seller for an MLM company, said he has studied the industry for 18 years and analyzed more than 500 MLM companies. He maintains the website MLM-thetruth.com and offers a free e-book there.

“I have not yet found a good MLM. A good MLM is an oxymoron,” Taylor said.

He said all MLM companies have the same flaw: They depend on endless chains of recruiting new members. “There is no more unfair and deceptive practice than multilevel marketing,” Taylor said.

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.”

The Direct Selling Association says MLMs are legitimate businesses, and that the group has about 200 members carefully screened by the organization to ensure they are not pyramid schemes and don’t use deceptive practices.

The Federal Trade Commission agrees there are legitimate MLMs. The difference between a legitimate business and pyramid scheme comes down to products.

If the company and its distributors make money primarily from the sale of products to end-users (and not boxes of product accumulating in a distributor’s garage), it’s OK.

By contrast, a pyramid scheme compensates those at the top of the pyramid with participation fees paid by those recruited at the bottom. It eventually collapses when the scheme can’t recruit more people.

But identifying a pyramid scheme can be difficult because MLMs typically have product sales, along with recruitment fees and recruitment incentives.

“It gets cloudy when you have a situation where you have fees being paid for both,” said Monica Vaca, assistant director of the FTC’s division of marketing practices. “It’s very nuanced.”

Copyright 2013 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Don't Miss a Story

Sign up for our newsletter to receive daily news directly in your inbox.