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Linking Pyramid Schemes (aka Multilevel Marketing Companies) and Consumer Bankruptcy

posted by Pamela Foohey

A couple weeks ago, on Last Week Tonight, John Oliver started what promises to be the greatest pyramid scheme ever. In an effort to help him, watch the segment here (warning: language). More seriously, multilevel marketing companies that sell products directly to customers through salespeople working out of their homes (Herbalife, Amway, Nu Skin, the relatively new Rodan + Fields) operate by way of a concerning sales structure. Salespeople recruit salespeople, who recruit more salespeople, who recruit yet more salespeople. The salespeople at the top make money off of the salespeople at the bottom. And the salespeople at the bottom often are left with stockpiles of soon-to-expire product in their homes and garages. Indeed, as noted by John Oliver, in July of this year, Herbalife consented to a $200 million settlement with the FTC in which they agreed to change their business tactics. When asked about Herbalife's business model, FTC Chairwoman Ramirez said, "they were not determined not to be a pyramid."  

Now, the potential (probable?) connection to bankruptcy filings. There is evidence that people sign up to sell these products because they need to make extra money--which makes sense. Signing up to be a salesperson for a multilevel marketing company could be one of many coping tactics used by someone hopelessly deep in debt. Get a second job, sell some belongings, go without insurance or food . . . and try to sell products from your home. People may get the idea from friends or financial gurus. For instance, Dave Ramsey's website has a page titled, "Guide to Joining a Multilevel Marketing Company," which includes some of the same inspirational, "go-getter," pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, you hold the key to your own success language that accompany Facebook posts that try to entice people to join Rodan + Fields. Of course, that means it is your fault when you fail, right?

Yet merely failing isn't the biggest problem for people who may be using this coping strategy. The first thing that people must do when they join the sales team is buy the products they will sell. If they are in already precarious financial situations, they may do so with credit cards, plunging themselves further into debt, and making it even more likely that they ultimately file bankruptcy. Which leads to my main question after watching the segment: What do we know about people who file bankruptcy, in part, because they got trapped in multilevel marketing companies? 


My hypothesis would be the same for many "causes" of bankruptcy. People who file often have many things happening in their lives that lead them to bankruptcy court. It is often hard to say that any one thing is the cause. Pyramid schemes are likely a contributor in the spiral of some into a bankruptcy filing.

As a consumer bankruptcy practitioner, I've witnessed first hand consumers whose debt situation were worsened by involvement in pyramid schemes and multilevel marketing organizations.

Many of the individuals who join such programs are already in debt and are looking for an easy way to make a quick buck. Coming from a very vulnerable position, too many are easy prey for those who market these programs, which are all too often presented with religious fervor.

To many of these people who ultimately needed to seek bankruptcy relief, it was their unreasonable optimism about getting rich (or at least getting extra money to pay their bills) that sunk them even further. These people are the net losers.

Unfortunately there are companies that are running complete scams, but not all MLM companies are created equal. The people that lose, lose for several reasons, and most times it's their own fault. Building a business, any business, takes skill and time. Most people that join the MLM industry don't want to learn the skills to be successful, nor take the time to build an organization. So they quit. My advice is research any company you're looking to join. Forget the pitch, ask questions, but most of all, be realistic.

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