The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A reality TV couple wanted to ‘bless’ Black people suffering financially. The FTC says it was a pyramid scheme.

Marlon Moore, also known as DJ ASAP, and his wife LaShonda allegedly scammed tens of millions of dollars from Black people falling behind on loans and bills due to the pandemic

STOCK ILLUSTRATION: Covid scams. (iStock)

A Texas couple once featured on an OWN network reality show “Family or Fiance,” promised people they could get a financial blessing of 800 percent in as little as a week.

It turns out they were running a pyramid scheme that targeted and then bilked Black people affected by the pandemic, according to two lawsuits filed against the Black couple.

In a joint complaint filed on June 16, the Federal Trade Commission and the state of Arkansas accused Marlon and LaShonda Moore of operating a pyramid scheme program called “Blessings In No Time,” or BINT. The Texas attorney general also has filed a lawsuit against the couple for scamming needy Black families.

For an upfront fee of $1,400 or $1,425, participants were told they could receive a return of $11,200 or $11,400 respectively — eight times their contribution to a “blessing loom.”

“In general, these schemes falsely promise a big return — or as BINT termed it, being ‘blessed out’ — following a modest initial payment,” the FTC and Arkansas complaint said. “In reality, however, very few consumers make any money. And the few consumers that do make money sometimes lose their profits by reinvesting in the scheme.”

Marlon Moore is known as DJ ASAP, which he says in marketing materials stands for “Always Serve A Purpose.” Participants said in interviews that the couple often chastised people for not recruiting enough. And in one call, they tried to discredit my reporting and warnings about pyramids schemes, one participant said.

Attempts to contact the Moores were unsuccessful.

Coretta Vanterpool of Florida said she lost close to $13,000. In total, Vanterpool said she and the family members she recruited were out $30,000. Others paid as much as $62,700 to participate in BINT, according to the FTC.

Vanterpool said she was told that an initial contribution of $1,425 would net her a “blessing” of $11,400 in seven to 10 days. To make even more money, she paid for multiple places on the blessing loom board. She was going to use the money to help pay down some of her $50,000 in student loans.

They just made it sound so real, so nice,” said Vanterpool, whose nephew recruited her. “Since he received his first payment, he thought it was legit. A lot of people came in because they had been furloughed or they had lost their jobs. Their companies had closed. A couple of ladies were about to lose their homes. I met one lady through the group who was trying to get the money so she could pay for chemotherapy.”

The type of fraudulent schemes alleged in the complaint go by various names — sou-sou, gifting circle, money board, or blessing loom. The illegal operations borrow the principles of legitimate sou-sous, informal savings clubs that have cultural roots in West Africa, the Caribbean and other immigrant communities.

In the real-deal saving circles, groups are small. People pool their money, taking turns receiving a payout. But they don’t get back more money than they put into the pot. It’s more like a forced savings program with accountability partners.

The hallmark of an unlawful pyramid scheme hinges on two key elements: You are asked to pay an upfront entry fee with the expectation of a significant payout, and you have to recruit others to do the same.

Typically, people are relentlessly pushed to recruit. There are steps or levels of the circle or octagon that lead to a center, which is when you are supposed to get your payout. The core of the con is that you’ll get a substantial “gift” relative to what you put up from people joining after you. The whole enterprise eventually collapses, and the last folks coming in — the wide base of the pyramid — lose their money.

Ponzi king’s death is a reminder that his con-artist tricks live on

Here’s why these scams work. Some participants get the promised payout. They in turn share testimonies of their substantial gains. But after several rounds of this fraudulent scheme, the money dries up because not enough new people are recruited who are willing to make upfront payments.

I’ve been reporting the rise of illegal pyramid schemes since last summer as desperate folks started looking for quick ways to make money. Promoters often target certain communities in which they share an affinity. Black promoters, for example, have been exploiting the disenfranchisement that many African Americans are feeling, especially those who have lost jobs because of the coronavirus. The operators get recruits to drag in family and friends, fellow church members and co-workers.

Structural racism helps schemers attract Blacks to fake ‘sou-sou’ scams

The message of building Black wealth that the Moores espoused resonated with people, the lawsuits said.

“People were really vulnerable, just ready for any kind of hope,” one California woman who was involved in BINT said in an interview. “They were talking about building a Black community and building generational wealth. Those are the catchphrases now. They were just kind of selling people a dream.

Some Black promoters of illegal pyramid schemes are using the Black Lives Matter movement to justify ‘sou-sou’ scams

I asked Vanterpool how she felt recruiting family members who lost money.

“It hurts because I brought someone else into a situation that they didn’t have to be in when they were already suffering,” she said. “I’ve put in money that I really don’t have that I should have just used for what it was for and that was for my loans. Now I’m starting back at square one and hoping and praying that I’ll get this money back.”