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How to Avoid Pyramid Schemes

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Direct selling can provide a flexible way for you to run your own sales business from home or online, but it’s important to distinguish legitimate companies from pyramid schemes. The red flag is when such a system depends on recruiting an ever-increasing number of “investors” than the selling of a product. We’ll help you avoid pyramid schemes and identify legal direct selling companies worthy of your research.

Direct selling vs. pyramid schemes

Direct selling is a legal business practice conducted through single-level sales (think door-to-door salesperson), host or party-plan sales and multilevel marketing companies, which depend on individual distributors to sell products to the public, often in a group, party-like setting or through catalogs or online stores. Distributors often have the opportunity to earn commission on their sales and those of the salespeople they recruit.

A pyramid scheme may be disguised as a multilevel marketing business, but it is actually an illegal scam that emphasizes recruitment rather than the sale of actual products. Instead of earning most of their income through selling, distributors are heavily rewarded for bringing on new sellers, who may have to pay an entry fee.

“It’s going to take some healthy skepticism and research for someone to recognize that difference,” said Stacie Bosley, associate economics professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn.

As of 2018, direct selling represents $35.4 billion in retail sales in the U.S. and 6.2 million people work full-time or part-time in the industry, according to the Direct Selling Association. Continue reading to find out how to avoid a pyramid scheme if you’re thinking about pursuing a multilevel marketing opportunity.

What is a pyramid scheme?

A pyramid scheme can be defined as a company that requires participants to make an investment in the business in exchange for the opportunity to sell products to consumers. Oftentimes, sellers are highly rewarded for recruiting newcomers, who then make a similar investment in the company.

Many types of businesses provide rewards for referrals, giving customers a small incentive to suggest a product or service to others, Bosley said. But if the recruitment model is the central feature of the company, it may be a pyramid scheme.

“Look for a really strong pay-and-recruit structure,” Bosley said. “If that’s there, I would worry about its legality.”

How pyramid schemes work

Here’s an example of a formula that a pyramid scheme could follow. Let’s say a seller makes a $500 investment to join the business. She is told she would be rewarded $150 per person if she recruits three more sellers, who would also make a $500 investment in the business.

From there, she would earn $30 for each new member that her recruits bring on. All of her recruits are given the same offer.

The original seller stands to make an increasing profit on her $500 investment, depending on how many people her recruits bring into the company. But each new member would make $450 at the first level, $50 short of their break-even point if they only recruit three more people. If they can’t pass the first level, they won’t get a return on their investment. Meanwhile, the company would continue to collect $500 from every new recruit, although it would have to pay commission to those who recruit more new members.

There could be instances where legitimate companies follow a similar model of rewarding recruitment. But if new member recruitment earns you more money than selling actual products or services, then the company would likely be a pyramid scheme.

Why are pyramid schemes illegal?

Pyramid schemes are illegal because they defraud investors who are promised their money back. In reality, money from bottom-level investors is used to pay other investors farther up the pyramid. And products in these schemes are often unsellable.

Pyramid schemes took off in the U.S. in the 1970s. One-on-one selling became popular for consumer items, such as cosmetics, kitchen tools and branded items like Tupperware, and pyramid schemes took advantage of the trend. The Federal Trade Commission began cracking down on scams that emphasized networking over selling actual goods, and the organization has continued to monitor the direct sales industry.

Another wave of pyramid schemes swept through the U.S. in the 1990s with the rise of email and internet access. Such scams still pop up today, though the FTC continues to bring cases against deceitful companies.

“Fraud goes in cycles, just like economies,” said Cheryl Jarvis, marketing professor and department head at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Fla.

The problem with pyramid schemes is the people at the top of the chain are the only ones who make money, Jarvis said. The majority of participants don’t see a return on their investment and ultimately lose money. Pyramid schemes are often short-lived because eventually, distributors run out of people to recruit and the operation stops growing.

“Mathematically, they’re unsustainable,” Jarvis said.

Report suspicious behavior. In addition to the FTC, state agencies investigate pyramid schemes. For instance, any fraudulent activity in New York should be reported to The New York State Attorney General’s Office. You could also file complaints with the Better Business Bureau.

How to avoid pyramid schemes

In addition to an emphasis on recruitment, here are other indicators that a direct sales opportunity may be a scam.

It’s sold as a passive income or easy money opportunity. As a recruitment strategy, distributors often emphasize how little effort is needed to make an income. In any business, selling enough product to turn a profit takes hard work, so be cautious if the company makes it sound simple.

Promise of unrealistic returns in a short amount of time. If you’re earning fast cash despite low sales, you’re likely receiving returns on people getting recruited to the company. Generating revenue too quickly could be a red flag.

No buy-back system. Pyramid schemes and legitimate multilevel marketing companies both typically require new members to purchase product to sell to consumers. However, reputable companies should offer a buy-back option if you want to leave the business. A company that doesn’t refund members for unsold product may be a part of a pyramid scheme.

High upfront fees. Be wary if the buy-in fee or initial investment seems high or exceeds the value of the products. High upfront fees combined with the lack of a buy-back program could indicate the business is a scam. Legitimate direct selling companies have a median startup fee of $99, according to the Direct Selling Association.

Abstract language. Take note if the company is unclear about processes or structures within the business. Product descriptions, prices and claims may also be vague or questionable. Recruiters could make inflated income claims as well to attract new sellers.

Do your own research rather than relying on what you hear from distributors, Bosley said. They are incentivized to recruit you and may not objectively present information.

“Of course, scheme operators aren’t going to make it easy for you,” she said. “There are layers of rhetoric and that makes it difficult to see the bones of the scheme.”

One way to quickly check a company’s legitimacy would be searching the Direct Selling Association’s database. Although not all existing direct sales companies are listed, a company that is a member of the DSA could be considered a reputable multilevel marketing business.

How to say ‘no’ to a direct sales recruiter

Social media has become a conduit for pyramid schemes. When people are approached about multilevel marketing opportunities, the sales pitch is often coming from someone they know, which can make it difficult to turn down, Bosley said.

“There’s feelings of obligation, allegiance, [of] not wanting to let someone down,” Bosley said. “We underestimate how powerful those kinds of emotions can be.”

The person asking you to join the company could be unknowingly participating in a pyramid scheme. If you’re skeptical about the operation, it’s best to reject them outright in a way you feel comfortable, Bosley said.

“If you give them any room, their incentives just keep coming,” she said.

First, you should be honest about your suspicions that there may be something illegal in the structure of the company. You could take a more thoughtful approach, communicating that you’re concerned about their involvement and well-being. You may want to point out that they could potentially harm others in the recruitment process.

“It doesn’t just affect you; it affects the person who recruited you and it affects the people you pass it on to,” Bosley said.

Request documentation. You could then ask for company documents, such as marketing plans or audited financial statements. The recruiter may not be able to provide this information, but if they can’t get such forms from someone else in the company, you could use that as a reason to reject their offer, Jarvis said.

“Whenever you get strong-arm social pressure, I’d say that’s a red flag,” she said.

Pyramid schemes vs. multi-level marketing companies

If you’re considering getting into the direct sales industry, here’s how to spot a pyramid scheme compared to a multilevel marketing company.

MLM company

Pyramid scheme

Recruitment rewards may be offered, but product sales drive income.

Recruitment is the primary revenue driver.

Buy-back program and exit strategy available for sellers.

No repurchase plan for unused inventory.

Initial investment cost is relative to the value of products.

Steep fees to join the business and receive products.

There is an actual consumer demand for products.

Product descriptions and claims are vague or misleading.

When direct selling could pay off

Not all multilevel marketing companies are pyramid schemes in disguise. A direct sales business could have a lower startup risk and lower cost of entry compared to other business opportunities, like buying a franchise, said Joseph Aquilina, ethics and compliance counsel for the Direct Selling Association. Although the payoff could be miniscule — as low as 70 cents or less per hour — sellers are usually independent contractors and can work on their own schedule.

“This is a very low-cost and low-risk opportunity for people to build their own businesses,” he said.

People often fall prey to pyramid schemes because of a need to supplement their household income, Aquilina said. While direct selling could provide a solution, scams and illegitimate businesses could turn people off the entire industry.

“It can take only a few bad apples to present a reputation challenge for the whole bunch,” he said.

You could also start a hobby-based business to monetize a personal interest. You would be able to follow your entrepreneurial instincts without answering to a larger organization. But getting a business up and running — and reaching profitability — takes time and commitment, even more so than direct selling.

Keep in mind that multilevel marketing depends on sales, and you have to be willing to put in effort to become successful, Jarvis said. Chasing a quick-fix or easy way to make income would likely land you in a pyramid scheme rather than a legitimate company.

“You’re going to be spending a lot more time than you think to make sales,” she said. “Those who are successful are the ones who make it a full-time job.”

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Small Business

Where Very Small Businesses Dominate

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Though it may seem like giant corporations like Amazon command the U.S. business landscape, small businesses continue to be the backbone of most local economies.

The U.S. Small Business Administration estimates that 99.9% of ventures, or 30.7 million companies, qualify as small businesses. However, the SBA’s definition of a small business is broad. To qualify, businesses must meet or fall below the maximum revenue and employee count that the SBA sets for each industry. Revenue limits span $750,000 to $38.5 million, while employee requirements range between 100 and 1,500 people.

But the vast majority of small businesses are much smaller — 89% have 20 or fewer employees. For this study, MagnifyMoney researchers only considered businesses with fewer than 10 paid employees, firms that may include younger companies and mom-and-pop operations with slim resources.

Researchers found that these extremely small companies come close to matching — and in one case exceeding — average payrolls of all businesses in their cities. We ranked the 50 largest U.S. metros by payroll relative to metro averages, growth among companies with fewer than 10 employees and the percentage of workers employed by these firms to see where they dominate.

Key Findings

  • Miami comes out on top with a large and growing number of small businesses: 84% of businesses here have fewer than 10 employees with 15% of the city’s total workforce employed by these extremely small companies.
  • Los Angeles takes second place, also with a large number of small-scale businesses, but what’s striking about these companies is that their payroll is 94% of the metro average, second only to Las Vegas where companies with fewer than 10 employees actually exceed the average payroll.
  • Louisville, Ky. is at the bottom of the list — just 7% of all workers are employed by companies with fewer than 10 employees. Additionally, the number of such small businesses in Louisville is dropping, which could be a bad sign for those still operating in the area.
  • Memphis, Tenn. comes in one spot above Louisville, Ky. This metro area had the lowest share of extremely small businesses on our list, as well as one of the lowest shares of all metro workers employed by these companies.
  • The average small business rate is 72% among all cities. In other words, roughly three quarters of businesses in the 50 largest metro areas have less than 10 employees on the payroll.
  • Generally, payroll per employee at these small businesses tends to be lower than the metro average. On average across all 50 metros, payroll per worker at companies with fewer than 10 employees is 79% of the metro average.

Metro areas where very small businesses dominate

Small businesses support the local economy in these high-ranking metros.

1. Miami

The South Florida city boasts the highest percentage of businesses with fewer than 10 employees as well as the largest percentage of its workforce employed at such companies, despite a relatively small business rate increase in one year’s time, just a 0.2% change. Average payroll per employee is 86% of the relative metro average.

The economic development council in Miami-Dade County identifies and promotes industries that are poised for job and wage growth including aviation, banking and finance, creative design, hospitality and tourism, technology, life sciences and health care, and trade and logistics. Tourism has long been a lucrative sector for Miami. Small businesses in the industry can promote their services at the City of Miami Beach Visitors Center, which has more than 120,000 annual visitors.

2. Los Angeles

Los Angeles holds the No. 2 spot thanks to a strong average payroll, second only to Las Vegas among extremely small businesses. Business rate growth was flat in one year’s time but 12% of LA’s workforce is employed by small businesses with fewer than 10 employees.

Entertainment is unsurprisingly among the top industries in Los Angeles, alongside aerospace, bioscience, transportation and fashion. The City of Los Angeles offers several resources and incentives to support small businesses, such as the Restaurant and Hospitality Express Program, which streamlines the permit approval process for food service establishments. The cyber threat protection program also helps small business owners learn best practices to prevent cyber attacks or breaches.

3. Tampa, Fla.

Another Florida metro rounds out the top three. Though it tops No. 2 Los Angeles by small business rate, Tampa has lower employment numbers: 11% of its workforce is employed by a small business with fewer than 10 employees. The average payroll of those companies is 81% of the metro average. Tampa has seen a 0.1% one-year change in the small business rate.

The metro area’s key industries include financial and professional services, manufacturing, distribution and logistics, life sciences and health care, information technology and defense and security. Tampa Bay is also a popular location for corporate headquarters.

Areas with a lesser impact from very small businesses

These metro areas see less economic influence from local small businesses.

48. Nashville, Tenn.

Nashville has one of the lowest small business rates in our study at 67%. Just 8% of workers in the area are employed by a small business with fewer than 10 employees, which see an average payroll per employee at 79% of the metro average. Nashville has seen a -1.0% one-year drop in its small business rate.

Nashville once had a population growth rate of nearly 100 people per day. That growth slowed this year, according to a report from The Tennessean newspaper, but the area has felt the effects of a rapid influx of new residents, including high tourism, expensive housing and displacement of low-income residents. Large retail chains like Trader Joe’s also continue opening throughout the area.

49. Memphis, Tenn.

The other Tennessee metro near the bottom of our list has a small business rate of 62%, the lowest of all metros we ranked. In Memphis, 7% of all employees work for a small business with fewer than 10 employees with average payroll per employee at 79% of the metro average. During one year’s time, Memphis had a -0.8% drop in the small business rate.

Memphis is among the poorest metropolitan areas in America, and residents face economic barriers such as high poverty as well as segregated and devalued neighborhoods. The Memphis River Parks Partnership, a nonprofit focused on transforming the area of Memphis closest to the Mississippi River, is working to support local businesses. Part of the organization’s efforts include contractor development strategies that position minority- and women-owned businesses for success.

50. Louisville, Ky.

In last place, Louisville has a 66% small business rate and a significant drop of -1.2% in growth during a one-year period, tying with Milwaukee. Just 7% of Louisville employees work for a small business with fewer than 10 employees where payroll per employee is 78% of the local average.

Louisville is working to grow its tech workforce to become an emerging technology hub. The city has invested in job programs and initiatives such as Code Louisville and Bit502, according to The Lane Report. Louisville has also partnered with educational institutions, nonprofits and local businesses to boost the city’s tech output.

Methodology

To rank the places where very small businesses dominate, we looked at data for 50 of the largest metropolitan areas. Specifically, we evaluated these four metrics:

  • Small business rate. This is the percentage of businesses with fewer than 10 employees.
  • One-year change in small business rate. This is the change from 2015 to 2016 in the small business rate.
  • Percent of workforce employed at small businesses. This is the percentage of all paid employees who work in small businesses with fewer than 10 employees.
  • Relative pay of small business employees. This is average payroll per employee of these small businesses divided by the metro area average payroll per employee.

We then ranked each metro in each of these metrics. Each metro area was scored based on the average rank received across the four areas. Data for all metrics comes from the Census Bureau’s 2016 and 2015 Survey of Entrepreneurs.

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How to Convert Your For-Profit Business into a Nonprofit

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Converting a for-profit business to a nonprofit entity could be a smart move if charity and community impact has become your focus as a business owner. But making the change requires more than applying for tax-exempt status.

The process would largely depend on your state’s laws regarding business conversions, and not every company can become a nonprofit organization without a good reason for doing so. Only certain types of businesses can turn into a tax-exempt entity, a procedure that requires filing paperwork with state organizations and the IRS.

Keep reading to learn what it takes to turn a for-profit enterprise into a nonprofit organization, and if it’s the right move for your business.

Reasons to convert a for-profit business to a nonprofit

Although there are several tax-exempt designations within the IRS’ Internal Revenue Code, most nonprofits fall under the 501(c)(3) umbrella for charitable, religious and educational organizations.

The benefits of 501(c)(3) status include exemption from federal income tax, as well as the ability to receive tax-deductible charitable donations. Organizations with the 501(c)(3) designation are also more likely to receive recognition from grant-making institutions and foundations.

Before you can be awarded tax-exempt status, you would need to meet the IRS’ criteria. Organizations may not be formed to benefit private interests, and no portion of the organization’s net earnings can benefit a private shareholder or individual. Nonprofit employees can earn a salary though.

Meeting these requirements could be difficult as a for-profit business, unless you’ve had charitable intentions from the start, said Gene Takagi, an attorney with NEO Law Group, which represents nonprofit and tax-exempt organizations.

“Consider making that conversion if the existing for-profit entity really has a goal that’s not financial…but is really all about providing a public service or public good for charitable or welfare purposes,” he said.

Here’s an example: A neighborhood store that sells the work of low-income artists started as a for-profit business to get equity investments from community members but was unable to generate substantial interest and capital. Turning the business into a nonprofit organization would allow the owners to collect philanthropic donations to keep the store open. Because the business had a charitable, community-focused intent from the start, it could be approved for tax-exempt status.

But if a business seeks 501(c)(3) status for less charitable reasons, the IRS could deny the request, Takagi said. For instance, a failing business looking to get out of tax obligations couldn’t become a nonprofit without making operational changes.

“You’re really going to have to make a good case to the IRS,” he said. “It’s got to look different than what you were doing in the past.”

Converting for-profit to nonprofit: 5 steps to follow

Nonprofits are highly scrutinized, and business owners may be faced with more regulations than they’re used to, said Brenda Asare, president and CEO of The Alford Group, a consulting firm that advises nonprofits.

“Those processes are in place to dissuade people who may want to come into this sector to take advantage of other people philanthropically,” Asare said.

To make sure you correctly convert your for-profit business to a nonprofit, here are a few steps to follow.

1. Check entity conversion laws in your state

When you form a business, you must set up a certain entity, or structure, which determines the number of owners a business can have, the owners’ personal liability and taxes the business owes. Common entities include sole proprietorships, limited liability companies (LLCs) and corporations. Nonprofits are usually formed as corporations, though they are able to receive tax-exempts status.

When changing your business to a nonprofit, you would have to convert the current structure to a nonprofit corporation structure. Depending on where you live, only some entities may be eligible for conversion.

In Louisiana and California, for example, corporations, LLCs, general partnerships and limited partnerships can convert to another type of entity through the state’s Secretary of State office. On the other hand, New York does not permit statutory conversions for business entities. Instead, business owners must establish a new entity, then merge the two companies into one.

Check with your state’s Secretary of State office to make sure you would be permitted to change entities.

2. File conversion paperwork

Because nonprofits are corporations, they must be incorporated through the local Secretary of State. If your for-profit business was formed as a corporation, a conversion could be as simple as amending your incorporation documents, also known as articles of incorporation. You’d need to file incorporation forms again to make the conversion, which would typically range in cost from $50 to $150. Additionally, because a nonprofit corporation does not have ownership, as a board of directors shares responsibility of the organization, existing shareholders of the for-profit business would have to forfeit ownership.

If your business is not a corporation, you would need to file new articles of incorporation with your Secretary of State. The articles of incorporation would call for the organization’s name, the purpose of the nonprofit and a designated registered agent to receive lawsuits and correspondence on behalf of the organization.

Other requirements when forming a nonprofit corporation include appointing a board of directors to make decisions about the organization’s activities, finances and legal compliance and drafting bylaws that regulate the board’s management and activities. The board of directors would also approve your compensation as the executive director or CEO of the organization, including your salary, health insurance and paid leave.

3. Apply for tax-exempt status with the IRS

You would need to submit IRS Form 1023 to apply for tax exemption under the 501(c)(3) code. Additionally, you would need to include a statement of your receipts and expenses, a copy of your articles of incorporation, a written description of your organization’s activities and a copy of your bylaws. You may need to apply for tax exemption at the state level as well.

For instance, nonprofits in California must file Form 3500A with the California Franchise Tax Board to be exempt from state income taxes. Organizations in Texas need to file Form AP-204 with the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, while nonprofits in Florida must submit Form DR-5 to the state’s Department of Revenue.

Timing is key when forming a nonprofit and requesting 501(c)(3) status, Takagi said. Make sure your organization is compliant as a nonprofit — meaning you have a charitable purpose, board members and bylaws in place — as soon as you make the entity conversion. This could help you avoid getting turned down for tax-exempt status and owing taxes to the IRS, he said.

4. Decide what to do with your business assets

After you convert a for-profit corporation to a nonprofit organization, all existing business assets would be held in a charitable trust, which means assets could only be used for the organization’s charitable purposes going forward. Intellectual property could be included as well, such as books, music or art.

You could take assets out of the business before making the conversion if you want to limit the assets that are put into the nonprofit, Takagi said. Then, any assets you decide to put into the nonprofit at a later time could be categorized as a charitable donation.

If you’re concerned about a delay in receiving tax-exempt status, you may not want to lock all of your assets in a charitable trust right away. You could form a separate nonprofit and continue running your business to maintain access to your assets, Takagi said.

“It might be more practical in some cases to not convert but run them side by side for a little while,” he said. “Then either merge or dissolve the company and then donate assets to the nonprofit at that time [when] you already know the nonprofit has 501(c)(3) status.”

5. Set up your fundraising strategy

Once you no longer run a for-profit business, you must begin collecting charitable donations to keep the operation afloat. Nonprofits need to generate a profit, despite their title, but those profits must be reinvested in the organization rather than distributed to owners and shareholders, as a business would do.

State laws regulate fundraising activities. You may be required to register with a state entity before you begin soliciting donations from local residents, and you may need to register in multiple states if your donor base crosses state lines. For example, nonprofits in North Carolina must obtain a license from the Charities Division of the Secretary of State’s office. Depending on your state, you could be required to renew your registration each year to continue legally accepting donations.

Private and public grants and individual donations are common funding avenues for nonprofits. Donors would likely want to understand the organization’s mission and target market before giving money. A misconception about the nonprofit sector is that organizations can easily secure money with few strings attached, Asare said. However, donors often scrutinize nonprofits before making a contribution.

“Nowadays, there aren’t many places you can get money without the expectation that organization is making an impact,” she said.

Donors could be suspicious of a nonprofit that was formerly a for-profit business, Asare said. Be prepared to explain how you plan to spend donations to show you’re not seeking personal financial gain.

“I think a good measure would be looking at what percentage of the dollar is going to the services and programs,” she said. “This is something donors are interested in and they will ask.”

Ongoing requirements after making the switch

After you’ve made the change from for-profit to nonprofit, you’d need to meet ongoing requirements to remain compliant as an organization. From filing certain tax forms and reports to paying particular taxes, here are some requirements to keep on your radar:

Form 990: Most tax-exempt organizations are required to file IRS Form 990 each year. Nonprofit entities must describe the organization’s activities, governance, financial information and accomplishments to justify its tax-exempt status.

Organizations that have generated at least $200,000 annually or have assets worth at least $500,000 must file Form 990 yearly, while organizations with fewer assets and a lower income can file Form 990-EZ, a shorter version of the form. Form 990-N, which is even shorter, is available to nonprofits with gross receipts of $50,000 or less.

Employment taxes: Nonprofits with employees must pay employment taxes, which include federal income tax withholding and Social Security and Medicare taxes. You could be responsible for federal unemployment tax as well.

State filings: States often require nonprofits to file reports each year. These reports could include corporate filings, financial reports, fundraising registrations and state tax-exemption forms. Failing to file annual reports with your state office could result in penalties or loss of your tax-exempt status.

The requirements for nonprofits may seem excessive, but policies are in place to ensure that organizations are honest about how the program uses donated money, Asare said. Compliance standards act as a safeguard to make sure money is going toward services and not into the pockets of the people in charge.

“The window is closing on some of that bad behavior,” she said.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.