How Pyramid Schemes Operate


Let’s look at how a pyramid scheme operates from three points of view: the potential investor, the promoter or con artist, and the victim. Many pyramid schemes will present a payout formula or matrix much like this one:

     Payment of $500

Level 1 $150 x 3 = $450

# # #

Level 2 $30 x 9 = $270

# # # # # # # # #

Level 3 $30 x 27 = $810

# # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # #

Level 4 $30 x 81 = $2430

etc. # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # #etc.



This example illustrates what is known as a three by four matrix. Each investor pays $500 to the promoter and is told to build a “downline” by recruiting three new members, who then each should recruit three more members. The investor is told that he will be paid $150 for each of the three members whom he enlists at the first level. The investor is also promised a $30 commission for each recruit at the next three levels. Thus, the investor should receive commissions for four levels of recruits below him, each of whom must recruit three more members, hence the name — a three by four matrix.

To the potential investor/recruit this may look like a very appealing opportunity. The pyramid promoter is likely to persuade the investor that he is “getting in early” and that he should consider himself at the top of the matrix. From this perspective, it appears that he can earn $3,960 on an investment of $500, a whopping 792 percent return. You can do the math easily: $150 from the first level of 3 recruits is $450; $30 from the next 3 levels of recruits is $270 ($30 x 9), plus $810 ($30 x 27), plus $2,430 ($30 x 81). Not a bad deal.

Yet, consider the matrix from the promoter/con artist’s point of view. He is the person at the top of the pyramid but in fact looks at the scheme from the bottom. He views each new investor as a predicable set of revenues and expenses, with the revenues flowing down to him. The con artist receives $500 for each new member, and at most he will have to pay $240 in commissions to earlier investors in the new recruit’s “upline,” i.e. those people responsible for bringing him into the system. So when an investor joins the system in the last level, the promoter will receive $500, but he will pay only $150 to the person who recruited the new investor, and $30 each to three longer-standing members in the new investor’s “upline,” for a total of $240. Thus, the con artist will keep over half of every $500 membership fee paid.

Let’s assume that this scheme collapses after the fourth level of recruits is filled. The con artist will have made $500 from the first investor in the pyramid ($500 with no commissions paid out), $350 from the 3 at the next level ($500 minus commission of $150), $320 from the 9 at the next level ($500 minus commissions of $150 + $30), $290 from the 27 at the next level ($500 minus $150 + $30 + $30), and $260 from the 81 newest investors ($500 minus commissions of $150 + $30 + $30 + $30). The simple math — $33,320 flowed down to the con artist — and all he did was attract one investor!

Now consider the pyramid from the investor/victim’s perspective — after the entire scheme has collapsed around him. The victim, like the first investor, thought of himself at the top of the pyramid but suddenly realizes that he is actually at the bottom, unable to find people interested in the program to build out his downline. He is not alone because mathematics shows that MOST investors will find themselves at the bottom of the pyramid when it collapses. The very structure of this matrix dictates that whenever the collapse occurs, at least 70 percent will be in the bottom level with no means to make a profit. They all will be out $500. In our example, even those people one level above the bottom will not have recouped their investment. They each will have paid a membership fee of $500 and collected commissions of $150 for each of three recruits, leaving each investor in the second-from-the-bottom tier at least $50 shy of his break-even point. In short, when the pyramid collapses all the investors in the bottom two levels will be losers. Adding together the number of victims from these bottom two levels shows that 89 percent of all the pyramid’s participants (108 of 121 investors) are doomed to lose money.