The Attorney General provides Consumer Alerts to inform the public of unfair, misleading, or deceptive business practices, and to provide information and guidance on other issues of concern. Consumer Alerts are not legal advice, legal authority, or a binding legal opinion from the Department of Attorney General.
Multi-Level Marketing or Illegal Pyramid Scheme?
What is the Difference?
"Multi-level" or "network" marketing is a form of business that uses independent representatives to sell products or services to family, friends, and acquaintances. A representative earns commissions from retail sales he or she makes, and also from retail sales made by other people that he or she recruits. Examples of well-known multi-level marketing companies include Amway and Mary Kay Cosmetics.
Some companies call themselves multi-level marketing when they are really operating pyramid schemes that violate Michigan's Pyramid Promotion Act. Even when a multi-level plan does not violate Michigan's Pyramid Promotion Act, the marketing of the plan may violate Michigan's Consumer Protection Act, if the acts, methods, or practices are unfair, unconscionable, or deceptive.
It is understandable that consumers often have difficulty telling the difference between an illegal pyramid scheme and a legitimate multi-level marketing opportunity. Governmental regulators and the industry continue to debate where the legal lines are drawn. Multi-level marketing is a lawful and legitimate business method that uses a network of independent representatives to sell consumer products. Compensation must primarily be based on the sale of products and services to the ultimate consumer.
Pyramid schemes claim to be in the business of selling products to consumers in order to look like a multi-level marketing company. However, little or no effort is made to actually market the product. Instead, money is made in typical pyramid fashion...from recruiting other people to market the program. Sometimes, new "distributors" are persuaded to purchase inventory or overpriced products/services when they sign up.
Pyramid companies make virtually all their profits from signing up new recruits and often attempt to disguise entry fees as the price charged for mandatory purchases of training, computer services, or product inventory.
Pyramid schemes are not only illegal; they are a waste of money and time. Because pyramid schemes rely on recruitment of new members to bring in money, the schemes often collapse when the pool of potential recruits dries up (market saturation). When the plan collapses, most people, except the few at the top of the pyramid, lose their money.
Although pyramid promoters claim that the possibility to earn is endless, this possibility cannot materialize due to market saturation. For example, if a program begins with one person who recruits two people, each one of whom recruits two more people, and so on, in only 28 levels practically the entire population of the United States - every man, woman, and child - would be involved, as is illustrated below.
Level Number of New Total Number of
1 1 1
2 2 3
3 4 7
4 8 15
5 16 31
6 32 63
7 64 127
8 128 255
9 256 511
10 512 1,023
11 1,024 2,047
12 2,048 4,095
13 4,096 8,191
14 8,192 16,383
15 16,384 32,767
16 32,768 65,535
17 65,536 131,071
18 131,072 262,143
19 262,144 524,287
20 524,288 1,048,575
21 1,048,576 2,097,151
22 2,097,152 4,194,303
23 4,194,304 8,388,607
24 8,388,608 16,777,215
25 16,777,216 33,554,431
26 33,554,432 67,108,863
27 67,108,864 134,217,727
28 134,217,728 268,435,455
When investigating a multi-level marketing opportunity, you should ask about market saturation and determine the saturation levels in your area of distribution. Legitimate companies do not have too many distributors in one area.
Pyramid promoters are masters of group psychology. Recruitment meetings create a frenzied, enthusiastic atmosphere where group pressure and promises of a large sum of money play upon people's greed and fear of missing a good deal. Promoters also openly discourage thoughtful consideration and questioning of the scheme. Victims often find themselves tricked into participating. At a recruitment meeting, you might hear phrases like "this is a ground floor opportunity which will change your life", "opportunities don't go away, they go to other people", and "if you act now and work hard for three to five years, you can retire and live off of the residual income." Another warning sign is a confusing compensation plan.
Claims by a company that their plan has been "approved" by the Michigan Attorney General should be bright red flags and you should report such a claim immediately to our office. A company that misrepresents one fact will likely misrepresent others. While our office is able to tell you if we have taken any legal action, we will not comment on any specific investigation of multi-level marketing companies. Additionally, we do not provide any advance form of approval for any company and if you want legal advice on whether a multi-level marketing opportunity is actually an illegal pyramid, you need to seek private legal counsel.
The simplest form of pyramid scheme is the chain letter that asks the recipient to pay $1.00 or more to each of five names on a list, copy the letter, and then send it out to new people with the recipient's name added to the list. Many chain letters claim to be legitimate because they offer a product. Upon close examination, the product is just a pretense. Often the newsletter simply describes additional "get rich quick" schemes and may be the only item that new members "purchase." Alternatively, the newsletter may be offered for "free" to every new paying member. In either case, the scheme is just a pyramid if it pays distributors to recruit new members rather than sell a real product to the wider public. In recent years, pyramid schemes have become more sophisticated, and many have surfaced on the internet.
Use Common Sense and Consider These Tips
The pyramid scheme disguised as a multi-level marketing opportunity is not always easy to spot, but is just as much of a scam as the chain letter. Here are some tips to consider before participating in a multi-level marketing program:
If you decide to become a distributor, remember that you are legally responsible for the claims you make about the company, its product, and the business opportunities it offers. That applies even if you are simply repeating claims you read in a company brochure or advertising flyer. If you decide to solicit new distributors, be aware that you are responsible for any claims you make about a distributor's earnings potential. Be sure to represent the opportunity honestly and avoid making unrealistic promises. If those promises fall through, remember you could be held liable.
If you join a pyramid scheme disguised as a multi-level marketing program, your decision will affect not only you, but also everyone you bring into the program. Many people devote a substantial amount of time trying to market these worthless ventures. Ultimately, if a multi-level marketing opportunity sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
FOR GENERAL CONSUMER COMPLAINTS, CONTACT THE ATTORNEY GENERAL'S CONSUMER PROTECTION DIVISION
If you have a general consumer complaint, please file a complaint with the Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division at:
Consumer Protection Division
P.O. Box 30213
Lansing, MI 48909
Toll free: 877-765-8388
www.michigan.gov/ag (online complaint form)