"Instant Millionaire!" The boldface words top a tacky flier that displays the image of a phony million-dollar bill. Sign up for "your own personal unique million dollar cash account," it urges, and you will be rolling in dough in no time. Let this "secret cash processing institution" work its monetary magic and you will "automatically get $1 million."
The get-rich-quick faxes from Tri-Star Marketing Inc. have been appearing in consumer and corporate fax machines nationwide recently. Come-ons such as "automatically get up to $1,000,000 by remote control" are repeated, ad nauseam, on Tri-Star's Web site and mailings. "You don't have to do any work at all," the promo unabashedly states, "because there's nothing to do except fill in your name, address and phone number on the registration form!"
But there is something else you must do. Send money, of course. How much? The one-time $10 "gifts" for each of six "upline sponsors" ahead of you in the program totals $60. Add another $15 registration fee to cover costs for processing your order and for your membership package -- which includes "camera ready" materials with reprint rights and instructions on how to sign on other would-be millionaires.
Twenty-five dollars more opens your savings "cash account" at the offshore bank that supposedly pays an interest rate of "213.84 percent APR" on all earnings deposited. For an additional $124.95 service fee, Tri-Star says it will do all the work for you and find "at least 10 actual recruits" to list downline from you.
"Give me a break! If life were this easy we would all be millionaires," says Edward J. Johnson III, president of the metropolitan Washington area Better Business Bureau, which has received "numerous inquiries" about the instant-millionaire offer. "This is sheer bunk."
While most level-headed consumers recognize offers like this are too good to be true, some nonetheless pay the price. "It appears to be nothing more than a pyramid scheme," reports Johnson. "The sad thing about it is that people who can least afford to be victimized by something like this are the ones who end up responding to it."
Pyramid schemes are multilevel, money-making ventures built around recruiting other cash-in-hand participants who buy into the promise of making a fast buck if they entice yet others to pay to join the pyramid system. But whether masquerading as chain letters, motivational programs, marketing plans or investment organizations, pyramid schemes that sell no bona fide product of value are fundamentally deceptive and illegal.
Not to mention a bad deal. The vast majority of recruits lose their upfront money and never see a penny in return. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has estimated that consumers lose tens of millions of dollars each year to these get-rich-quick scams.
"Our economists have analyzed programs like this, and they tell us that in cases where income is derived by recruiting other people, at least 89 percent of the people will lose their money," says Betsy Broder, an assistant director in the planning and information division in the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "The only ones who get rich out of these schemes are the people at the top."
But Tri-Star Marketing president Dary Riedlinger says his "Instant Millionaire" plan is legal. "According to postal and FTC regulations, you have to have a legit product or service," says the former Amway distributor based in Everett, Wash. "We have some informational product in the program and a service where we work for the client in the multilevel matrix."
The offshore savings account is another service, says Riedlinger, who also argues that his promotional faxes aren't prohibited by FTC regulations that ban unsolicited commercial faxing because they offer "free information" and those regulations are "unconstitutional."
Maintaining that the prospect of striking it rich with his offer is "very realistic," Riedlinger backpedals when asked if a majority of recruits will lose their money. "Statistically, I think obviously, there is only a small percentage of people who actually become millionaires.
"We do have disclaimers throughout the material saying the examples we use are illustrations only and not guarantees. Statistically, only a small percentage make it. Anybody who signs up at any point has the opportunity, but they themselves have to have a large matrix beneath them."
FTC officials won't comment specifically on businesses or offers that aren't currently under investigation. But Betsy Broder mentions a pyramid scheme the FTC shut down recently that promised unsecured credit card distributorships and attracted some 32,000 recruits. In a 1997 case, the FTC forced a pyramid promoter promising only promotional materials and instructions for creating promotional Web sites to return more than $5 million to his customers.
What makes them illegal is the deceptive promise of wealth, says Broder. "The FTC [has] a law that prohibits unfair acts and practices, and when you tell someone, `Pay me money and I'll make you a millionaire,' those are false promises."
Meanwhile, in an effort involving 200-plus law-enforcement agencies, 26 Better Business Bureaus, and other consumer organizations, the FTC this week announced a new, toll-free Consumer Help Line (877-382-4357) that consumers can call to talk to counselors and report illegal pyramid promoters and other scams. "All the information goes right into our database that we use to target our law-enforcement actions and trends," says Broder. "We ask consumers to report to us instances of rip-offs. When they have been victimized, we want to hear about it."