EDITORIAL: Creeping Up On MLM Perdition

EDITOR’S NOTE: The MLM “program” known as Wings Network is alleged to have operated through two business entities that used the name “Tropikgadget.” The SEC’s case, announced Friday, is filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts. That’s the same venue in which the agency’s epic TelexFree case was filed last year.

There can be no doubt — zero, none — that vulnerable immigrant populations in Massachusetts are being targeted in one MLM scheme after another. Speakers of Spanish or Portuguese may be particularly at risk. It’s also apparent that Asian, Haitian and African population groups are being targeted and that the risk is not unique to Massachusetts residents. The WCM777 “program,” for example, brushed through Massachusetts, where it was aimed at speakers of Portuguese and was stopped by the Massachusetts Securities Division in late 2013.

When the SEC took down WCM777 in March 2014, the agency described the California-based “program” with possible conduits in the British Virgin Islands and Hong Kong as a “worldwide” pyramid scheme that targeted Asian and Latino communities. The circuitousness of the money flow and the bizarre narrative surrounding WCM777 were, in two words, deeply troubling.

MSD also has squared off against a “program” known as EmGoldEx. In this scam, investors were promised returns of up to 1,105% and photos of children “getting paid” were used as lures to drive dollars.

One of the Tropikgadget entities — Tropikgadget Unipessoal LDA — allegedly was set up in the Madeira Free Trade Zone in November 2013 and later abandoned. Madeira, whose largest city is Funchal, is a North Atlantic Portuguese archipelago slightly closer to continental Africa than continental Europe. It is worth pointing out that the SEC publicly thanked both Portugal’s securities regulator (Comissão do Mercado de Valores Mobiliários) and the office of Portugal’s Attorney General (Procuradoria-Geral da República of Portugal)  for assistance in the American probe.

The other Tropikgadget entity — Tropikgadget FZE — appears to have been set up in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, also in November 2013. Sharjah, on the Persian Gulf, is the UAE’s third most populous city, behind Dubai and Abu Dhabi, according to WikiPedia. The paper presence of these companies at geographic points on the North Atlantic and the Persian Gulf more than 4,300 miles away from each other and how they enlisted Massachusetts residents to do their bidding probably is a story unto itself, but it is a story for another day. What’s news today is that Wings Network was operating in Massachusetts at Ground Zero for TelexFree after the TelexFree action and, like TelexFree, is accused of  fleecing vulnerable immigrant populations.

At least seven of the 12 charged Wings Network promoters had addresses in Marlborough, Mass. This is potentially important because TelexFree’s U.S. operations were based in Marlborough. TelexFree operated through various U.S. entities and a Brazilian entity known as Ympactus. Brazil-based TelexFree/Ympactus figure Carlos Costa has TelexFree business partners in Massachusetts, waved the flags of Madeira and Portugal in a 2013 TelexFree promo and invoked God in appeals to support TelexFree. Sann Rodrigues, a charged TelexFree promoter associated with an MLM entity known as iFreeX that also operated in Massachusetts and has come under scrutiny, has claimed “God” invented MLM and “binary.” Rodrigues, according to the SEC, is a recidivist pyramid-schemer.

In one way or another, all of these “programs” have created a PR problem for MLM — this while Herbalife is squaring off against an FTC investigation and allegations by Bill Ackman that it is a pyramid scheme that targets vulnerable population groups.

There’s also evidence that the Zeek Rewards “program” taken down by the SEC in 2012 targeted vulnerable people.

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Funchal, Madeira, to Sharjah, UAE. Source: Google Maps.

Funchal, Madeira, to Sharjah, UAE. Source: Google Maps.

UPDATED 11:32 A.M. ET U.S.A. The SEC’s “Wings Network” case announced Friday is the latest example of the MLM world’s intolerable capacity to deceive. Though the facts alleged by the SEC are alarming, the action against two companies, three officers and 12 promoters is not an indictment of the trade. Indeed, the agency worked with the Direct Selling Association to expose one of the most mind-numbing lies.

But you still have to wonder if MLM and network marketing in general are on the road to perdition. This is because the horrifying abuses and thematic lies that propped up Wings Network are so common across the larger MLM trade that one can be forgiven for wondering if targeting vulnerable population groups and institutionalizing prevarication is Rule No. 1.

How DSA Got Involved In The Wings Network Case

Adolfo Franco, the trade association’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, sits at the intersection of commerce and government affairs. He’s an old political hand and has worked as a Republican strategist and assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Franco wants the MLM industry to prosper, and he wants to make sure he has a wholesome story to tell in government corridors.

Wings Network didn’t give him one, to be sure.

You see, Wings Network is accused by the SEC of using the DSA’s name to sugarcoat a creeping, cross-border fraud scheme that ultimately gathered at least $23.5 million. What actually happened, according to the SEC and an affidavit prepared by Franco, is that DSA received an “e-mailed request”  for a DSA membership “application.” It then sent out the application, which was never returned. Not only was the application not returned, according to the affidavit, DSA never even heard back from Wings Network.

What allegedly happened next will surprise no one who follows the bizarre dramas MLM has been serving up for the past several years. This simple request for a membership application was conflated by Wings Network and affiliates as an endorsement by DSA of Wings Network.

By April 2014, according to the SEC, DSA became aware of this ribald deception. The association reacted by sending Wings Network a cease-and-desist letter, directing Wings Network and affiliates to stop claiming membership in DSA and stating point-blank that “any indication that Wings Network is a member of the DSA is fraudulent.”

Multiple Layers Of Deception

Could it get worse? Sure. Wings Network hucksters also are accused of duping participants into believing the “program,” which advertised guaranteed income, had the additional benefit of insuring them against loss.

Anyone who’s been following the unbelievably noxious example of TelexFree can tell you that the same thing allegedly happened there. The same thing currently is happening in a “program” known as “MooreFund,” and it previously happened in the AdSurfDaily Ponzi scheme in 2008 broken up by the U.S. Secret Service.

The MLM scammers look for a tiny kernel of truth and then wrap a lie around it: A “program” may have a bank account, for example. Money in the account may be insured by the FDIC in the event of a bank collapse.

From this, the “programs” themselves and affiliates conflate a fantastically malignant construction by which no one can lose money because of the “insurance.” It is just a contemptible lie. It’s also one that has been bettered by new versions of the lie. These versions — as is the case with Wings Network,  TelexFree and MooreFund — hold that private insurers or even software companies such as Symantec have the companies’ backs and that these private insurers never would do business with a fraud scheme.

Supplementing this lie are companion lies — advanced by Wings Network, TelexFree and others — that a business registration with a Secretary of State or equivalent agency domestically or overseas is proof that there is no underlying scam. (One need only to look at Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC to understand just how preposterous this type of lie is.)

Here’s the thing: The type of lies advanced by Wings Network  are not unusual for “opportunities” using an MLM or network-marketing business model. DSA happened to be the victim of brand-leeching and runaway disingenuousness in this case, but other cases show it’s hardly alone. Even the names of the U.S. government and various U.S. agencies have been dropped in this fashion.

Not even the “brands” of God and Jesus Christ are off-limits in the MLM sphere. Sometimes an asserted endorsement by a deity is supplemented by suggestions that living legends of entertainment and business have piled aboard a “program” train.

This is a short summary of these tactics as employed by recent MLM or network-marketing schemes that either cratered on their own or collapsed after regulatory intervention. (Note: Some background information also appears in the summary):

  • WCM777. Operated by Ming Xu. Targeted people who spoke Spanish, Portuguese, English and Asian languages. Dropped names of God, “Yahweh,” Jesus Christ, Al Gore, Steve Wozniak, Sylvester Stallone, “Rocky,” Eric Garcetti, Siemens, Goldman Sachs, the Denny’s restaurant chain and many, many more famous companies.  (As many as 700.) Basic sales message: Send us money. Get rich. Estimated haul: $80 million in less than a year. Estimated number of victims: tens to hundreds of thousands.
  • TelexFree. Operated by James Merrill, Carlos Wanzeler and Carlos Costa. Largely targeted people in the United States and internationally who spoke Spanish, Portuguese and English. Global penetration at an almost unfathomable level. Appears to have created black market and back-alley economy in Massachusetts. Became subject of undercover investigation by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Dropped names of God, Jesus Christ, MLM Attorney Gerald Nehra, President Obama, Massachusetts Commonwealth Secretary William Galvin, the SEC, the U.S. Attorney General. Basic sales message: Send us money. Get rich. Estimated haul: $1.82 billion in about two years. Estimated number of victims: hundreds of thousands to more than 1.8 million.
  • Zeek Rewards. Operated by Paul R. Burks. Targeted people who spoke Spanish, Portuguese,  English and Asian languages. Global penetration at an almost unfathomable level. Affiliates targeted Christians. Dropped names of the Association of Network Marketing Professionals, MLM attorneys Gerald Nehra and Kevin Grimes, plus MLM consultants Keith Laggos and Troy Dooly. Basic sales message: Send us money. Get rich. Estimated haul: $897 million in less than two years. Estimated number of victims: hundreds of thousands. “Clawback” cases to return alleged ill-gotten gains may affect 10,000 or more affiliates.
  • eAdGear. Operated by Charles Wang and Francis Yuen. “Primarily” targeted “investors in the U.S., China, and Taiwan,” according to the SEC. Dropped names of Google, Yahoo, Target Corp., Lbrands (Victoria’s Secret), Avon, Sears, Nordstrom, eBay, QVC, HSN, J.C. Penney, Banana Republic, Dillard’s, Kohl’s, Macy’s, Amazon.com, Men’s Wearhouse, Kmart, New York magazine and many, many more. (As many as 253 brands were abused.) Basic sales message: Send us money. Get rich. Estimated haul: $129 million. Estimated number of victims: tens of thousands.)

Wings Network now stands accused of targeting “many members of the Brazilian and Dominican immigrant communities in Massachusetts” in a combined pyramid- and Ponzi scheme that raised at least $23.5 million.

If that sounds familiar, perhaps it is because the TelexFree “program” was accused last year by the SEC of doing the same thing in the same place. Like Wings Network, TelexFree reached across national borders to plunder investors. Recent filings by the court-appointed trustee in the TelexFree bankruptcy case — and these filings are subject to amendment in part because there are more than 1 trillion disparate data points involved in the reverse-engineering of TelexFree — list the “nature” of the company’s business as “pyramid scheme.”

Other filings by Stephen B. Darr, the trustee, suggest that TelexFree gathered more than $1.8 billion in about two years of operation through a series of entities in the United States and an affiliate in Brazil known as Ympactus. The dollar volume alone is simply mind-boggling, more so when one considers the records so far denote “1,894,940 Participant names, spanning 35,110 pages.”

Some readers who sift through the TelexFree material will need a name-pronunciation guide and a world atlas. TelexFree didn’t just mow down Americans. The records suggest, for example, that the “Embassy Of Nigeria P O Box 1019 Addis Ababa Ethiopia” has contacted Darr. One document lists “Baker Island,” which WikiPedia says is an uninhabited Pacific atoll tended to by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as the “country” of an investor.

It is clear that TelexFree had investors (at least) in Argentina, Australia, Belarus, Belgium, Bolivia, Cambodia, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Croatia, Cyprus, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, France, French Polynesia, Germany, Ghana, Guatemala, Honduras, Hong Kong, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Mexico, Moldova, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Qatar, Romania, Russia, Rwanda, San Marino, Serbia, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Tanzania, Thailand, Togo, Turks and Caicos, U.S. Virgin Islands, Uganda, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States, “Unknown” country, Uruguay, Uzbekistan and Venezuela.

MLM in this form is “fraud creep” running wild. It is posing dangers to individual participants, including those who can ill afford to take a financial hit. Beyond that, it is posing a danger to the U.S. financial infrastructure.

Economic security is national security, friends. These MLM HYIP “programs” pose an untenable security threat. Many of them are shrouded in multiple layers of mystery.

DSA Needs To Do More

It is good to see that the DSA worked with the SEC on the Wings Network case. It would be better yet if the organization studied why so many MLM HYIPers appear to move from fraud scheme to fraud scheme to fraud scheme.

Where did these people start their “MLM journeys?” Did they start at, say, Herbalife or Amway after buying into the dream and the attendant hype? And did they get churned by those “traditional” MLMs, only to become shark bait for the HYIPs?

With so many of the scams selling the message that it’s nearly impossible to make money in “traditional” MLMs and that 97 percent of people who latch onto the MLM dream of riches emerge as losers or highly vulnerable treaders of water in rough seas, isn’t it time for those traditional MLMs to question whether they are creating the refugees and providing the training for the targeting?

Herbalife is not an HYIP. But it sells a dream and has a high burn rate. The most recent scheme to sell against traditional MLM is “Achieve Community,” taken down by the SEC last month.

Achieve promoters even cited “the 97 percent” as part of an overall theme that was well beyond bizarre, up to and including the recording of a commercial that used nearly six minutes of footage from the SEC’s website and practically dared the agency to investigate Achieve and other HYIPs.

Whether or not “the 97 percent” claim is precisely true is immaterial. What’s material is the ready availability of vulnerable population groups and refugees from “traditional” MLMs.

TelexFree even may have channeled Herbalife, calling its cheerleading sessions “extravaganzas” and latching onto the sport of soccer.

Stemming this hurtful tide should be a top priority at DSA. The wave of scams is not docile. It very well might be eroding protective shores in violent fashion and creeping up on the road to perdition.

About the Author

2 Responses to “EDITORIAL: Creeping Up On MLM Perdition”

  1. Brent Wilkes is national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

    http://lulac.org/about/director/

    Patrick

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  2. Excellent post! I’m not sure how long authorities will see this modus operandis as you describe “”The MLM scammers look for a tiny kernel of truth and then wrap a lie around it: A “program” may have a bank account, for example. Money in the account may be insured by the FDIC in the event of a bank collapse. From this, the “programs” themselves and affiliates conflate a fantastically malignant construction by which no one can lose money because of the “insurance.” It is just a contemptible lie. It’s also one that has been bettered by new versions of the lie. These versions — as is the case with Wings Network, TelexFree and MooreFund — hold that private insurers or even software companies such as Symantec have the companies’ backs and that these private insurers never would do business with a fraud scheme.”

    (reminds me other after Telexfree scams, Geteasy, DFRF, BBOM and many) different names, same crap, most of the time same old FACES!!! (it’s just scandalous!!) (Orlando seems to be a good spot for them…)

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