My Experience with a Pyramid Scheme


Claire Johnson

One day my friend and I expressed our search for jobs in casual conversation with a fellow MVHS student. For anonymity purposes, we’ll rename my friend “Tom” and our classmate “Clint.” Clint’s eyes lit up as he excitedly told us about a startup company he has been working for several months called Ariix. He showed us videos of the company’s main product: water filters. He described how this revolutionary water filter is going to hit the public markets soon and if we are recruited now we could accumulate huge profits. Clint offered that there was an upcoming informational meeting for new recruits. We didn’t take Clint seriously at first, but even though we had our doubts we figured, what is there to lose?

As a fellow classmate, we didn’t know super well, we thought it was generous that he would offer us a job opportunity, and a ride all the way there too. What is crucial to keep in mind is that Tom and I had no initial reason to question or doubt Clint or Ariix. Every step of the process is specifically designed to persuade people to invest in this business proposition. We had no way of mentally preparing ourselves for the psychological warfare that ensued.

Clint and his “boss” picked us up at Tom’s house in a sleek BMW, dressed in tailored suits. Immediately Tom and I felt like we were underdressed, and we were struck by the idea that we needed to impress the business associates we were about to meet. We slipped into the car and throughout the drive, they interviewed us on what our qualifications were. After a twenty minute drive, we pulled up to a house in San Jose, lined with Audi’s and BMW’s along the street. On the porch, we were greeted by about ten young adults also dressed to impress. For about fifteen minutes we had small talk with these young entrepreneurs who were involved in Ariix.

Once the doors opened, we stepped into a bright living room where rows of foldable chairs sat facing a large plasma screen television. There was a professionally printed banner that read “Ariix” and a song similar to Fatboy Slim’s “Right Here, Right Now,” was playing. Clint sat next to us and “actors” piled in on all sides of us. Our blood pumped with anxiety as we took a seat and awaited the presentation.

A friendly, charismatic young man named Kirk took the spotlight and for an hour fluidly spoke about how working for Ariix has been the best business investment for him. He cited relatable anecdotes from his adolescence about how he partied too much and needed extra money to survive comfortably in this economy. Kirk brought up one of the most elaborate, professional powerpoints I had ever seen, convincing me this company was legitimate.

Ariix is described as a health company that sells water filters and vitamin supplements. We were presented with videos and pictures exposing how amazing these products were: filters that could turn soda into water and vitamins made from top-shelf ingredients that were healthier than your One-A-Day pill. Kirk noted that Ariix is already international and growing exponentially faster than Facebook or Google. Working for Ariix seems easy: they want to sell and recruit. It would be our job to sell the products door-to-door or get people to work for you, promoting your rank in the company. Kirk described that you can make money based off of commission of the people you hire. Whatever money they earn, you also get a percentage of it, and so forth. It was a pyramid scheme.

With each enthusiastic point Kirk made, the actors around us would cheer, clap, and pump their fists. Surrounded on all sides by fast-paced persuasion, we were brainwashed to believe that what they were feeding us the truth. Mob mentality overcame our logic and Tom and I started to cheer as well. We had no way of checking the facts, but the positive energy from everyone else made us believe that Ariix was the smartest investment we could make.

After the presentations, Kirk introduced us to a polished woman on the side who showed us the product book. A glance over my shoulder and I saw the two other guests who Tom and I did not know were at the mercy of the rest of the business associates, who turned their chairs into a circle to pressure them into signing up.

The woman explained she needed our personal information so they would send us trials of the products. Still brainwashed by the allure of a profitable business prospect, we trusted this was a credible venture so we told her our names, phone numbers, and addresses.

My stomach churned nervously when she then asked for our credit card and social security numbers. By an uncharacteristic stroke of luck, neither Tom or I had brought our wallets.

Tom’s brows furrowed and he started questioning her, “Why do you need my credit card number?”

She danced around the question and gave a haphazard answer that it was so they could charge the initiation fee and order the products right away. She said that they could retrieve that information later on in the process when we had it readily available.

Clint, who was breathing over our shoulders the entire time, bolted up from his chair and announced, “We have two new members!”

The rest of the room erupted with cheers, claps, and a chant of, “Welcome to the family!”

It sounded welcoming and kind but felt eerie because it reminisced a cult.

Finally, the other new recruitments were pressured into signing up but they were not as excited about it. There was no way one could leave without signing up. They would not allow you to escape once you were in their clutches.

Before we left, from multiple people we were told, “Don’t tell your parents.” They claimed that because there was so much overwhelming information at once, our parents wouldn’t understand. They suggested we bring in profits first so our parents would be proud of us for taking our own initiatives to become financially independent.

These people knew I was seventeen years old and they were prying on my parents’ credit card numbers like vultures. The immoral manipulation of these people absolutely revolts me, but the only way to survive in the scam once you’re in is to pass the burden onto someone else.

It was 10:30 and we had been there since 7:00 pm. Clint and his boss were our only rides home and we depended on them to leave. Looking back, that was a really dumb move on our part, but they would not tell us where we were going and insisted on carpooling. I didn’t notice until later that the house we were in had absolutely no furniture either. This scam has enough money to buy empty houses for demonstration purposes. Enough money to make these amazing websites, powerpoints, videos, and fake products; it’s an international scheme that we had no chance of fighting. We trusted these people and they took advantage of that, who knows who these people really could have been? We could have been murdered, we were completely vulnerable to them.

Throughout the ride home, Clint and his boss raved about how smart of a move we made, but meandered around the questions Tom and I had.

Tom and I went into Tom’s room after they left and looked up Ariix. It was definitely a scam and we had to find a way out of it. Kirk and Clint continued to call us repeatedly until midnight demanding our social security and credit card numbers. They claimed that our spots in the pyramid would be filled and we’d be behind in making profits if we did not complete our contracts now. Scared and shaken, we told them politely we were no longer interested. Kirk’s friendly demeanor switched to angry and desperate as he got more and more defensive. He told us they would continue to call us the next day to discuss again.

The next morning, Tom and I spoke on the phone with Kirk. I lied to Kirk and told him I had talked to my cousin who is a lawyer’s assistant, and she said not to make the investment.

“No one really understands how well the company works until they have tried it. Who is telling you this information? What are their credentials? Who are they to tell you what’s the best decision for you?” Kirk snarled.

I told him sternly we were not looking to make such an investment and, “If this was a legitimate company, you wouldn’t be begging me to take a job and work for you.”

A nervous chuckle gurgled from the other line, “I’d hardly say I’m begging you. I can see you’re getting false information and I urge you to think heavily about your options. We can talk again later about this. Ariix is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity–”

“We are not interested. Please stop calling us. Have a nice day.”

That was the last we heard from him.

The scariest part was reflecting afterward and remembering how convinced we were. You watch documentaries on cults and scams and roll your eyes, how could people be so stupid to fall for that? We believe we would never fall for something so obvious, but the Ariix scam is rehearsed to the smallest detail to convince people to fall for it. There were no obvious flaws or holes in their presentation so we had nothing to immediately set off any red flags in our minds. When you are bombarded on every side with statistics, personal anecdotes, and peer pressure, it’s far easier to fall for something that you would otherwise have recognized as a blatant scam.