Multi-Level Marketing vs. Pyramid Scheme Companies: Which to Avoid

There are a number of legitimate multi-level marketing or direct sales companies that allow you to buy products, sell them to customers, and earn a commission. However, there are also illegitimate companies that operate pyramid schemes and offer no realistic way to recoup your investment. Below, we explain the difference between multi-level marketing companies and common fraudulent business strategies and analyze several existing companies to determine whether they can be legitimate sources of income.

Multi-Level Marketing vs. Pyramid Scheme vs. Ponzi Scheme

Multi-level marketing companies (MLM) involve direct, person-to-person sales. As an MLM member, you’re known as a distributor, consultant, or business owner, and you make money by selling products (which you must first buy from the company) and earning a commission from the sales. You can also make money by recruiting other distributors and earning commissions from their sales. You’ll then earn commissions from the sales made by their recruits, thus creating a “downline” of commissions.[1] This naturally leads to a pyramid-shaped business model.

The difference between an MLM and a fraudulent pyramid scheme comes down to whether or not there is a realistic possibility of earning back your initial investment through sales (and not just recruitment). Pyramid scheme companies make extravagant promises about potential earnings and encourage you to keep buying products even if you aren’t making sales. They also emphasize recruiting new distributors.[2] In some cases, the products may not even be genuine. Distributors only make money from their downline of recruits (if they make any money at all), and the companies typically end up collapsing with no money being made from outside sales.[2] As an investor, you’ll lose your money, which is why it’s important to avoid these types of companies.

Similarly, a company involved in a Ponzi scheme is one that gathers investors and repays them only with money made from new investors.[3] If you invest in a Ponzi scheme, your money will be used to pay previous investors as new investors are recruited to repay the money you contributed. Instead of a pyramid of sales distributors, it forms a pyramid of investors, and it is just as dangerous when the pipeline of new investors is empty. Ponzi scheme companies will promise high returns with low risk (which is already a red flag), and you may also be able to spot this type of company through its unregistered investments or firms, overly consistent returns, or excessively complex business plans.[3] Pyramid schemes and Ponzi schemes are both illegal business practices.

In general, it is best to avoid buying into a company if there are no clearly established methods for earning back your investment outside of internal commissions or recruitment. If you suspect you are being or have been recruited by a fraudulent business, you can submit a tip or report it to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

Companies to Avoid

The following companies have been found to operate within a pyramid structure or have related issues that you might want to avoid. Note that we do not accuse these companies of wrongdoing; we are simply reporting our findings from governmental and legal reports.

AdvoCare

  • Legitimacy: In 2019, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ruled that AdvoCare was operating a pyramid scheme and ordered it to stop all illegal activity and pay $150 million to Distributors.[4]
  • Warnings: AdvoCare was ordered to stop all multi-level marketing practices, and it no longer advertises its business opportunity on its website.[4][5] Despite claims of potentially “unlimited income,” in 2016, more than 70% of Distributors did not earn any money from AdvoCare.[6]
  • Product/service: Weight management and sports performance products[5]
  • How to earn money: If new Distributors are accepted, they can only earn money by selling AdvoCare products to customers, not from purchases of other Distributors they recruit.[6]
  • Initial investment: $59 startup fee, $50 annual renewal fee, plus product costs (no minimum purchase requirement); you’re entitled to a refund if you no longer want to be a Distributor[7]
  • BBB accredited? No; A- rating[8]

iMarketsLive

  • Legitimacy: iMarketsLive (also known as International Markets Live or IML) is a legitimate MLM company. However, the Direct Selling Self-Regulatory Council (DSSRC) recently found that the company was advertising inflated income claims.[9]
  • Warnings: In 2018, the FTC found iMarketsLive to be exercising unregistered trading authority over its customers’ third-party brokerage accounts, which violates several federal regulations. The FTC ordered the company to stop all unlawful activity and pay penalties.[10] The company is also not permitted to offer financial services in 19 territories around the world.[11]
  • Product/service: Online educational “academies” for topics like trading in digital currency, foreign exchange (FOREX), and high-frequency markets[12]
  • How to earn money: Though the stated intent is for customers to earn through trading (using the resources included in each “academy” package), the original Compensation Plan only defines income for referrals.[13]
  • Initial investment: Under the original Compensation Plan, the initial cost is $195, plus $145 per month.[13]
  • BBB accredited? No; F rating[14]

Kyäni

  • Legitimacy: At the time of writing, Kyäni is in the appeals process regarding pyramid scheme allegations.[15] The company is still operational.
  • Warnings: In 2017, Kyäni faced a nationwide class-action lawsuit alleging pyramid scheme business practices, such as unrealistic income promises and an emphasis on recruiting over sales.[16] Additionally, in 2018, only 50% of Business Partners earned more than $25.[17]
  • Product/service: Skincare products and dietary supplements[18]
  • How to earn money: Independent Business Partners earn commissions from sales, and they earn money anytime a Business Partner in their downline enrolls a new customer and accumulates sales.[19]
  • Initial investment: Enrollment pack prices start at around $140.[20]
  • BBB accredited? Yes; A+ rating[21]

Loom

Note: This is not a specific company, but a chain letter “game” that circulates online and through social media.

  • Legitimacy: This type of chain letter game is not a legitimate business or multi-level marketing company; no real product or service is being sold, and the entire concept is fraudulent.[22]
  • Warnings: These types of “games” can appear under different names, such as a “Giving Circle” or “Blessing Loom.” The FTC advises against ever participating in such a game or encouraging your family and friends to participate.[22]
  • Product/service: None
  • How to earn money: Making the initial investment earns you a spot on the circle/loom/game board, and as you recruit new players, you move toward the center of the board. Once you reach the center, theoretically, you collect the $100 investment from each of the newest players on the outer rings of the board.[22]
  • Initial investment: Typically $100 via PayPal[22]
  • BBB accredited? N/A

LuLaRoe

  • Legitimacy: At the time of writing, LuLaRoe is involved in a lawsuit in the state of Washington; it faces allegations of operating a pyramid scheme business model and not disclosing its refund policy to Consultants.[23]
  • Warnings: There are extensive product complaints.[24] Also, in 2016, more than 99% of Consultants earned an average of less than $6,800 for the year (after subtracting the initial inventory costs, this amounts to less than $2,000 in profits).[25]
  • Product/service: Apparel[26]
  • How to earn money: Consultants earn commissions from sales and from other Consultants they sponsor.[27]
  • Initial investment: Inventory kits cost around $5,000.[28]
  • BBB accredited? No; B- rating[29]

Our related research has more information about LuLaRoe’s compensation plan.

Vemma

  • Legitimacy: In 2015, the FTC forced Vemma to shut down its multi-level marketing operation due to pyramid scheme allegations.[30]
  • Warnings: The company’s online retail store is still active, but it is not enrolling new Affiliates.
  • Product/service: Dietary supplements[31]
  • How to earn money: N/A
  • Initial investment: N/A
  • BBB accredited? No; F rating[32]

Legitimate Multi-Level Marketing Companies

The companies listed below operate legitimate multi-level marketing companies. However, it is worth noting that some of these companies were previously found to be participating in fraudulent business practices and were ordered to restructure to become legitimate. Furthermore, many of the companies below also have issues you will want to be aware of before joining — we note these warnings wherever possible.

ACN

  • Legitimacy: ACN is a legitimate MLM company.[33]
  • Warnings: Several current and former ACN Independent Business Owners report complaints, such as a focus on recruitment over customer sales, high costs of materials and events, and low earning potential.[34] ACN has also been involved in at least one class-action lawsuit alleging that the company paid politicians for endorsements, and the payments were not disclosed.[35]
  • Product/service: Reselling a variety of residential and business services, including identity theft protection, gas and electricity, internet and phone, and security[36]
  • How to earn money: Independent Business Owners make money when someone registers as a new customer and pays their bills, as well as when they recruit other Business Owners.[36]
  • Initial investment: $199 Start-Up Fee and $25 Monthly Business Support Fee[37]
  • BBB accredited? Yes; A+ rating[38]

Amway

  • Legitimacy: Amway is a legitimate MLM,[39] and it is the largest direct marketing company in the world.[40]
  • Warnings: Independent Business Owners report typical MLM issues — difficulty recouping initial investments, emphasis on recruiting, etc.[41] The company also has an entire section of its website dedicated to refuting myths and accusations about its business practices.[42]
  • Product/service: Health, beauty, and household products[43]
  • How to earn money: Independent Business Owners earn money by selling products and meeting performance milestones, as well as from the sales of others in their downline.[44]
  • Initial investment: Registration fee (refundable within 90 days) and $62 annual fee; no purchase requirements[42]
  • BBB accredited? Yes; A+ rating [45]

Arbonne

  • Legitimacy: Arbonne is a legitimate direct selling company and a member of the Direct Selling Association (DSA).[46][47]
  • Warnings: In 2017, Arbonne faced pyramid scheme allegations in a lawsuit, but the case was dismissed.[48] The company has also received warnings from the FTC about potentially misleading social media posts.[49]
  • Product/service: Cosmetics and skincare products, as well as nutritional supplements[50]
  • How to earn money: Independent Consultants earn commissions from direct sales and from the sales of those in their downline.[51]
  • Initial investment: $49 registration fee, $29 renewal fee, plus product costs; no inventory requirements[52]
  • BBB accredited? Yes; A+ rating[53]

Avon

  • Legitimacy: Avon is a legitimate direct selling company and a member of the DSA.[54][55]
  • Warnings: Representatives and employees cite issues with slow business growth and high sales pressure.[56]
  • Product/service: Cosmetics, household items, and personal care products[57]
  • How to earn money: Representatives earn money from direct sales and commissions from the sales of Representatives they recruit.[58]
  • Initial investment: Enrollment is typically free, though there are starter kit options starting around $30.[59]
  • BBB accredited? No; A+ rating[60]

Beautycounter

  • Legitimacy: Beautycounter is a legitimate direct sales company and a member of the DSA.[61]
  • Warnings: In 2019, more than 80% of Beautycounter Consultants earned an average of less than $50 per month.[62]
  • Product/service: Cosmetics and skincare products[63]
  • How to earn money: Consultants earn commissions from product sales and override commissions from other Consultants they mentor.[62] There are monthly sales targets for all Consultants.[64]
  • Initial investment: $50 Digital Kit or $98 Enrollment Kit, plus product costs (no minimum purchase requirements)[64]
  • BBB accredited? Yes; A+ rating[65]

doTERRA

  • Legitimacy: doTERRA is a legitimate MLM company, and it advertises itself as a sales-driven business.[66]
  • Warnings: The FTC and FDA have issued warnings to doTERRA regarding unsubstantiated health claims.[67][68]
  • Product/service: Essential oils and personal care products[69]
  • How to earn money: Wellness Advocates earn commissions from retail sales as well as for enrolling new Advocates (and their sales).[70]
  • Initial investment: Enrollment kits start around $100.[71]
  • BBB accredited? Yes; A+ rating[72]

Our related research has more information about essential oil direct sales companies.

Herbalife

  • Legitimacy: In 2016, the FTC ordered Herbalife to restructure its multi-level marketing operation and pay $200 million to customers and Distributors, thereby legitimizing the company.[73] The company now has a clearly defined sales structure.
  • Warnings: Prior to the FTC charges, Herbalife promised substantial income and heavily rewarded Distributors for recruiting (instead of selling).[73]
  • Product/service: Dietary supplements and wellness products[74]
  • How to earn money: Herbalife Independent Distributors earn money by selling products and by sponsoring new Distributors.[75]
  • Initial investment: Herbalife Nutrition International Business Pack (cost varies; fully refundable for the first year)[76][77]
  • BBB accredited? Yes; A- rating[78]

Isagenix

  • Legitimacy: Isagenix is a legitimate MLM company, but very few Associates earn any notable income.[79]
  • Warnings: The FTC recently found that Isagenix was making unsubstantiated claims about potential earnings and issued a warning to the company.[80]
  • Product/service: Personal care products, weight management products, and dietary supplements[81]
  • How to earn money: Associates earn commissions from direct sales and from the sales of those they enroll as Associates in their team.[82]
  • Initial investment: $29 annual membership fee, plus product costs[83]
  • BBB accredited? Yes; A+ rating[84]

It Works!

  • Legitimacy: It Works! is a legitimate MLM company.[85]
  • Warnings: In 2015, nearly 86% of Distributors averaged less than $50 in monthly earnings.[86] The company has also received warnings from the FTC about unsubstantiated product claims.[87]
  • Product/service: Beauty and personal care products, nutritional supplements, and wellness products[88]
  • How to earn money: Distributors earn commissions from direct sales and from the sales of those in their downline.[89]
  • Initial investment: $99 Business Builder Kit, plus product costs[90]
  • BBB accredited? No; C+ rating[91]

MONAT

  • Legitimacy: MONAT is a legitimate MLM company.[92]
  • Warnings: In recent years, MONAT has faced several class-action lawsuits from customers and former Market Partners about the quality of its products and adverse side effects.[93]
  • Product/service: Haircare, skincare, wellness, and pet products[94]
  • How to earn money: Market Partners earn money through direct sales, as well as through enrolling new Market Partners.[95]
  • Initial investment: $99 startup cost and $49 annual renewal fee[96]
  • BBB accredited? No; B- rating[97]

Norwex

  • Legitimacy: Norwex is a legitimate MLM company with defined ways to earn through sales.[98]
  • Warnings: Customers have reported several complaints about Norwex products and customer service.[99] Additionally, unlike many MLM companies, Norwex does not publish an income disclosure for its Consultants.
  • Product/service: Home goods and eco-friendly cleaning supplies[100]
  • How to earn money: Consultants earn commissions from retail sales, as well as commissions and bonuses from recruiting and their recruits’ sales[98]
  • Initial investment: Starter Kits start at $99.[101]
  • BBB accredited? No; A+ rating[102]

Nu Skin

  • Legitimacy: Nu Skin is currently a legitimate direct sales company in the United States; in 2016, however, the company faced a class-action suit in China alleging pyramid scheme activity.[103]
  • Warnings: In the late 1990s, the FTC ordered Nu Skin to pay $1.5 million in penalties to resolve charges about unsubstantiated product claims.[104] The company also faced a securities fraud class-action lawsuit in 2014.[105]
  • Product/service: Personal care products and dietary supplements[106]
  • How to earn money: Brand Affiliates earn a commission from sales only, and they are not compensated for recruiting other Affiliates.[107]
  • Initial investment: None; no minimum purchase requirements[107]
  • BBB accredited? Yes; A+ rating[108]

Rodan and Fields

  • Legitimacy: Rodan and Fields is a legitimate direct sales company but faces criticisms like low earning potential.[109]
  • Warnings: In 2019, nearly 70% of Consultants averaged less than $310 in earnings for the year.[110] Also, the FTC has issued warnings to the company about unsubstantiated product claims.[111]
  • Product/service: Skin care products[112]
  • How to earn money: Independent Consultants earn commissions on their sales as well as sales from their team and Consultants they sponsor.[113]
  • Initial investment: $75 enrollment fee, plus product costs(with a 60-day money-back guarantee)[114]
  • BBB accredited? Yes; A+ rating[115]

Shaklee

  • Legitimacy: Shaklee is a legitimate MLM company, and it publishes its income disclosures annually.[116]
  • Warnings: While Shaklee was not at fault, in 2012, the company discovered that a long-time Distributor was leveraging their affiliation with the company to gain investments from other Distributors, thus creating a Ponzi scheme that defrauded dozens of people.[117] Shaklee immediately ended its relationship with the Distributor, who faced legal consequences.[118]
  • Product/service: Nutritional supplements, weight management products, cosmetics, household products, and more[119]
  • How to earn money: Distributors earn commissions and bonuses from direct sales, as well as from sponsoring new Distributors (and their sales).[120]
  • Initial investment: $50 Distributor fee, plus the cost of a Starter Kit (typically about $160)[121]
  • BBB accredited? Yes; A+ rating[122]

THRIVE (by Le-Vel)

  • Legitimacy: Le-Vel is a legitimate MLM company with successful product sales,[123] but it does not publish Promoter income disclosures.
  • Warnings: In its Policies, Terms & Conditions, Le-Vel makes the important distinction that “The earnings of Le-Vel Brand Promoters…are not necessarily a representation of the income, if any, that a Le-Vel Brand Promoter can or will earn through [their] participation in the Le-Vel Compensation Plan.”[124]
  • Product/service: Lifestyle plans for physical and mental wellness, as well as dietary supplements and beauty products[125]
  • How to earn money: Promoters earn direct sales commissions, as well as from the recruitment of other Promoters (and their sales).[126]
  • Initial investment: No enrollment fee and no minimum purchase requirements, but you must buy and/or sell enough product to remain “qualified” in the program[127]
  • BBB accredited? Yes; A+ rating[128]

Thrive Life (formerly Shelf Reliance)

  • Legitimacy: Thrive Life is a legitimate MLM company with a heavy emphasis on sales.[129]
  • Warnings: Customers have reported a variety of complaints about Thrive Life products and promises.[130]
  • Product/service: Freeze-dried foods and meal kits[131]
  • How to earn money: Consultants earn commissions from direct sales, as well as from their team’s sales (as deep as six levels).[129]
  • Initial investment: Starter kits start at $100.[129]
  • BBB accredited? No; A+ rating[132]

Tupperware

  • Legitimacy: Tupperware is a legitimate direct sales company, and it is one of the oldest existing home party companies in the U.S.[133]
  • Warnings: In 2017, 94% of Tupperware Independent Reps earned less than $700 for the year.[134]
  • Product/service: Kitchen and household products (especially plastic food containers)[135]
  • How to earn money: Independent Reps earn profits from direct sales and team sales, and they must recruit new Reps to be promoted.[136]
  • Initial investment: Virtual startup kits start at $15, and basic product kits start at $60.[136]
  • BBB accredited? No; C- rating[137]

USANA

  • Legitimacy: USANA is a legitimate MLM company, despite being sued for pyramid scheme practices in 2007.[138]
  • Warnings: In 2017, more than half of active USANA Associates earned $0, and the next 25% earned less than $250.[139]
  • Product/service: Nutritional products and dietary supplements[140]
  • How to earn money: Associates earn commissions and incentives from direct sales and group sales (from their team of Associates).[141]
  • Initial investment: Must purchase a Business Development System (BDS); cost varies[142]
  • BBB accredited? Yes; A+ rating[143]

World Financial Group (by Transamerica)

  • Legitimacy: World Financial Group (WFG) operates a legitimate MLM company, though the pyramid-shaped business model is obvious.[144]
  • Warnings: Since 2010, WFG has been investigated and fined several times for things like the unauthorized sale of private securities, failing to supervise registered representatives, selling fraudulent securities, and more.[145][146][147]
  • Product/service: Reselling insurance and financial services[148]
  • How to earn money: Agents earn commissions from sales, as well as from the sales made by those in their team of new Agents.[149]
  • Initial investment: Varies[150]
  • BBB accredited? Yes; A- rating[151]

Younique

  • Legitimacy: Younique is a legitimate MLM company, though it does not publish income disclosures online.[152]
  • Warnings: In 2019, the cosmetics brand Coty announced that it would be selling its controlling share in Younique, mostly due to failures of the direct selling business model.[153][154]
  • Product/service: Beauty products[155]
  • How to earn money: Presenters earn royalties from direct sales and from other Presenters in their group. Commission increases are also only possible through recruitment.[156]
  • Initial investment: $99 Presenter Kit[157]
  • BBB accredited? Yes; A+ rating[158]
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