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Slaving on the Pyramids

By: David Olesker, POB 2534, Jerusalem 91024

Tel. (02) 651 2610 Fax (02) 652 4968 e-mail: olesker@IsraelMail.com

© 1998

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Announcements like this appear in newspapers, flyers stuck onto utility poles, and even shul parsha sheets. They seek to be offering intriguing business propositions that could provide either the answer to all your problems or a healthy supplementary income. You may hear of them via e-mail, a friend or relative, or an old-fashioned letter in your mailbox. For many frum people, pressed for time, money, and school bills, they appear attractive. But what do they really offer?

Most such schemes are by definition frauds (both in the legal and halachic sense), and the only way of profiting by them is by others losing. Those that are not clear frauds are suspect in some other way, and should be avoided by a ba’al nefesh.

The schemes fall into three categories: Ponzi Schemes, Pyramid selling, and Multi-Level Marketing (MLM). Lets look at each of them in turn.

Ponzi Schemes

Charles Ponzi immigrated to North America from Italy in 1903. His colorful career included convictions for forgery in Canada, smuggling aliens into the United States in Atlanta, real estate fraud in Florida and dying penniless in a Brazilian charity ward! In between he developed a form of fraud that bears his name.

Ponzi claimed to have discovered a quirk in the international postal system that would allow him to buy postal coupons in one country and redeem them at a 400% profit in another. In order for the scheme to work he needed "investors" and so offered promissory notes paying "fifty percent. profit in forty-five days." In the end 10,000 people put up over nine million dollars in one year, after which the scheme collapsed . There were, in reality, no postal coupons, so where did all the money come from? Simply put, a Ponzi scheme runs like this:

Shimon asks Levi to lend him $100, and promises to repay him $150 in forty-five days. In the meantime, Shimon borrows – on the same terms -- $100 each from Gad and Naftali. Shimon keeps $50 for himself, and pays back Levi. He then has forty-five days to find four more people to borrow from. As news of the profits spread, Shimon no longer has to seek out prospective "investors", they come to him. In the end, Shimon will run out of people to recruit and the "bubble" will burst, leaving those who have not yet been repaid cheated.

Merciless Mathmatics

Why does the bubble always burst? And old Arab folk tale describes a simple but clever man who did a valuable service for the Chalif. The Chalif asks what he can do to repay him, and the man asks for a chess board. He asks the Chalif to place a single grain of rice on the first square, and twice that number (two) on the second square. He asks that twice that number (four) be placed on the third, square, and so on till the last square of the chess board. The Chalif thinks him a fool for seeking such a modest reward, until he works out that not enough rice exists in his empire to fulfill the wish!

As you can see from the diagram and table, in the end the Chalif would have had to come up with a staggering quantity, more than 9 million trillion grains of rice!

Square Grains of rice


Grains of rice













































The "doubling at each level", when applied to the Ponzi scheme, shows that after only 28 levels it would have taken in more people than the entire population of the United States in 1920 when the scheme ran! A few steps after that it would have exceeded the population of the world.

This is the astonishing power of geometric progression, and we will see its effect in all of the schemes we are going to look at.

Pyramid Schemes and Chain Letters

Shimon offers Levi and Gad the chance to "invest" by purchasing "distributorships" at $1,000 each. The "distributorships" give Levi and Gad the "exclusive" right to sell "distributorships" to others for $1,000 each and to sell certain products to the public. However, each $1,000 that Levi and Gad receive from their sales of "distributorships" must be divided with Shimon, say 50-50. Thus, theoretically, Levi and Gad can realize $500 on each "distributorship" they sell and can completely recover their initial $1,000 "investment" by selling only two "distributorships." Shimon, however, has received not only Levi’s and Gad’s $1,000 each, but also $500 for each "distributorship" that Levi and Gad sell.

Initially, it appears that this can go on forever, with no one being hurt and everyone making money. But the chart below shows that the number of investors needed to keep the pyramid scheme working quickly exceeds the population of the United States. (The chart assumes Shimon initially sells "distributorships" to six persons, each of whom brings in an additional six "purchasers" per month.)













362,797,056 (Exceeding US Population)


13,060,694,016 (Exceeding World Population)

The chart also shows why such a scheme is called a "pyramid" – the promoters are at the top of a pyramid-shaped flow of money. Money coming from later investors flows upward to the top. Being at the top may result in your receiving a lot of money quickly, but it is virtually impossible to determine, at the beginning, where in the pyramid you stand.

A pyramid is really an improvement on the classic Ponzi scheme. Shimon no longer has to search for new "investors" – his victims do so for him!

Chain letters are the written (or increasingly e-mail) versions of pyramids. You receive a letter with, typically, five names in a list. You are instructed to send a certain amount of money – usually $5 – to the person at the top of the list, and then eliminate that name and add yours to the bottom. You are then instructed to mail copies of the letter to five more individuals who will hopefully repeat the entire process. The letter promises that if they follow the same procedure, your name will gradually move to the top of the list and you’ll receive money – lots of it.

There's at least one problem with chain letters. They're illegal if they request money or other items of value and promise a substantial return to the participants. In the United States they are a violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 1302, the Postal Lottery Statute. In other Western countries they are also illegal.

Pyramid schemes are also illegal in most of the Western world. They are a fraud since:
They are guaranteed to fail (and usually quicker then you would imagine), and
Those who do make money on the scheme can only do so since a much greater number of people lose. Since the overwhelming likelihood of loss is never made clear the transaction is a fraud.

Multi Level Marketing
A number of pyramids schemes try to mask their more obviously fraudulent nature by claiming to be distribution networks for products. Each investor receives the right to sell a product of questionable utility and value. Of course, much more money is promised if one sells "distributorships" rather than the product itself. The products are frequently obscure financial instruments, quack "medicines" or "health products", or strange household appliances. Of course no one in their right mind wants the product, and if they did they could probably buy it in a store for much less! But the purpose of the endeavor is not to sell the product, but to recruit people into the scheme.

This use of products is intended to obscure the differences between pyramid schemes – which are always frauds – and multi-level marketing (MLM) schemes, some of which may be legitimate.

MLM claims to be a form of retailing. Distributors purchase stocks of products, which they can then sell at a profit. In addition, they can recruit more distributors (their "downline") and receive a share of the profits they make. One’s own downline may extend for several levels, allowing you to make profits from the sales of many people. Since this would far exceed the income you could make from selling the product, there is an obvious incentive for all concerned to put their efforts into recruiting rather than selling. The similarity to pyramids becomes clear at once.

Legitimate MLMs can be recognized by a single litmus test: would you be willing to work in this framework even if you never recruit anyone? If the answer is "yes", then you are selling a real product that you can reasonably expect others to buy for their own benefit. If the answer is "no" then all you are selling is the right to sell someone else the right to sell someone else… etc.

Large, well known corporations like AMWAY and Shaklee market their products via MLM, and their operations have been judged legal in the United States. Yet even legal MLMs have real moral drawbacks.

Menuval b’reshush HaMalchus?

Even large, successful, and legal MLMs present many worrying features to the ben or bat Torah.

"Spiritual" claims

Organizations like AMWAY hold large-scale "motivational workshops" for their distributors, in addition to recruiting sessions. These are conducted in an atmosphere resembling a Christian "revivalist" meeting, even down to the offering of "testimony" by those who have been "saved" by their involvement. Some MLMs are openly Christian in their orientation (although Christian clergy are often the first to condemn this commercialization of religion).

But even when the cross is left out, great play is often made of quasi-spiritual language. Products are described as "positive" and bringing "positivity" into a dark and negative world. "Motivational" tapes are sold to distributors in order that they should acquire the right mind set. ("Our pantyhose are positive. If you are wearing the pantyhose of another company, you have negative legs".)

There was one incident when a large MLM company held a weekend workshop in the Baltimore area. The many frum Jews involved in the company made a "shabbaton" in the hotel in which the event was being held, and welcomed the company representative with great kavod after Havdalah – like an admor by his chassidim! The Sunday was devoted to being "motivated"!

Commercialising relationships

Many large MLMs suggest selling to your friends and family, as well as recruiting them. Since many would be embarrassed to say no, a clear sh’eilah of hamas exists.

Most people fail

Even in the best run MLMs most investors fail. If that were not the case, either the local market would be quickly saturated, or the company would quickly grow to dominate the planet! Yet neither the companies, nor those they recruit, reveal this to potential distributors… if they did who would join? On the contrary, claims are made that imply financial success as a near certainty. A very real sh’eilah of geneivas das exists here.

Profiting at the expense of others

If an MLM scheme closely mirrors a pyramid, then, as we have seen, a few will prosper and most will lose. In essence, those who make money do so only because others lose. This is no way for a yirat Shamayim to make a parnasah!

Pyramids, MLMs and the Torah Community
With tedious regularity new and old pyramid and MLM schemes surface in Torah communities. The reasons are obvious. Amongst avreichim in particular, money is always tight. Large families, marrying off children, and day-to-day living expenses stretch available resources to the limit and beyond. People are often desperate for additional sources of income. The chance to make large sums of money quickly, or regular income in one’s spare time, are tremendously attractive. Yet they are little more than mirages.

Success in a "legitimate" MLM requires large expenditure of time and capital, with little chance of success at the end. Those who make large sums of money quickly are almost certainly doing so by questionable means. MLMs, and how much less so pyramids, are not man sent to feed the righteous in the midbar. When an illegal scheme is prosecuted the participation of Torah Jews in its structure has the potential for enormous chillul Hashem.

At Pesach we celebrate our deliverance from slavery under Paroh in Mitzrayim. It may well be that we slaved for him in the construction of pyramids. Let us not condemn ourselves to slavery in building more pyramids today.

1 comment:

  1. Just received a check for $500.

    Sometimes people don't believe me when I tell them about how much money you can earn by taking paid surveys online...

    So I show them a video of myself getting paid over $500 for filling paid surveys to finally set the record straight.