Both the Amway and Herbalife cases underscore one of the problems of prosecuting alleged pyramid schemes: There is no federal law defining the crime, leaving it to the courts to interpret and pricey lawyers to find wiggle room. The debate is also clouded by the rhetoric of free markets. At the far right end of that debate is the DeVos family, which has donated $200 million to Republicans over the years, and owns a company that combines Christian fundamentalism with extremist free-market ideology and maintains such a grip on many of those who join it that some, fearful for their lives and harassed mercilessly, went into hiding after they sought to expose it.
Well think of your grandma, remember her perfume or hand cream…chances are she probably got it from Avon and that’s kind of their reputation. But don’t misjudge the number of grandmas that bought from Avon. This company is the one that approached the yearly revenue of Amway with a cool $5.7 billion dollars. But what goes up must come down…their sales have been declining over the last 5 years, and this company just sold their North American branch after quite a few years in the business.
Jim’s friend who recruited him into the company starts telling Jim that the way you really start making money with Company A is recruiting other people beneath you to sell shakes. “When you sign someone up,” explains Jim’s friend, “you will start getting a 10% commission on the product your recruit is required to buy from Company A in order to qualify as a distributor. If you can get 3 people to sign up, it means you would be earning 10% commission on all the product those 3 recruits are required to buy, plus whatever they purchase beyond that minimum.”
The key factor that has made network marketing so attractive is that independent business owners not only have the ability to sell products and services to retail customers they are also able to expand their business by setting up others in their own businesses as well. This is commonly known as “sponsoring” in the MLM industry. Sponsoring others allow a business owner to not only profit from what he directly sells, but also allows him to profit from the sales production of those he has sponsored.
An issue in determining the legitimacy of a multi-level marketing company is whether it sells its products primarily to consumers or to its members who must recruit new members to buy their products. If it is the former, the company is a legitimate multi-level marketer. If it is the latter, it could be an illegal pyramid scheme. The Federal Trade Commission has been investigating multi-level marketing companies for several decades and has found many that blur the lines between the two. According to industry data, there are 90 million members worldwide, but relatively few earn meaningful income from their efforts. To some observers, that reflects the characteristics of a pyramid scheme.
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