College students are the new recruits in multilevel marketing schemes


Karissa Korman

Multilevel marketing recruiters have cranked up the heat beneath college campuses. Growing economic uncertainty and competitive pressure make students more vulnerable than ever to less-than-orthodox work opportunities.

Karissa Korman, lifestyle editor

Whether it comes as a suspicious direct message on Instagram or as a text from a distant high school acquaintance, the script rarely wavers: “Hey, boss babe! I have an opportunity for you.” 

Messages like this make enticing promises of financial security and entrepreneurial prosperity to college students, but they often come from multilevel marketing schemes, or MLMs, that hide a long, often shadowy past of economic exploitation behind the lures of “independence,” “being your own boss” and general “girlbossery.”

The old-school predecessors of contemporary MLMs sank their teeth into 20th century suburban women, whose labor was tied to the home. Companies like Tupperware promised women the opportunity to generate an income and gain a sense of independence in the process. They established the red-flag hierarchical business model that future generations of MLMs would follow, in which the salesforce is financially incentivized to recruit additional employees. Employees — or “business owners,” according to the MLM dialect — sell products, like plastic food containers and Mary Kay makeup. But the real income comes from a percentage of the sales of their own recruits, who are in turn encouraged to sell and recruit, and so on and so forth.

Decades since their rise to domestic infamy, MLMs don’t look the way they used to, no longer sending housewives door to door to host Mary Kay makeup parties with their friends. That’s due, in part, to modern companies learning to take cues from internet-savvy marketing tactics and to separate themselves from pyramid schemes’, MLMs’ illegal cousins, past battles with the Federal Trade Commission, or FTC. In fact, many direct-selling companies no longer refer to themselves as multilevel marketing schemes at all but rather choose terms like “network marketing companies” and “affiliate marketing organizations.”

“It’s a grotesque distortion of business,” said Robert FitzPatrick, the founder of the watchdog consumer organization Pyramid Scheme Alert and author of “Ponzinomics: The Untold Story of Multilevel Marketing.” “It adapts with the internet. It goes after new groups. But it’s a swindle that is disguised as business.”

A 2018 AARP study found that 71% of MLM salespeople have yet to complete a bachelor’s degree, and almost half join in their twenties. Against rising tuition rates and correspondingly vast student debt, growing costs of living and an increasingly uncertain job market, today’s college campuses are hotbeds of financial anxiety. And even after thorough image rebranding, MLMs have still been able to recycle their 1950s housewife messaging about “becoming your own boss,” “working when it works for you” and above all, generating an income that is at least supplemental, if not financially emancipatory, for students.

When Nivjana Minga, a former business administration major who graduated from Northeastern in 2022, posted about her internship search on her Snapchat story, an old friend from high school reached out to her with a “marketing” opportunity at Monat, a hair care company that was founded in 2014.

“She used a lot of those pretty words, like ‘business owner’ and ‘independent,” Minga said, describing her friend’s initial pitch.

In a FaceTime call with Minga, her friend’s team leader rattled off a series of unconventional work benefits. But Minga had more than a few questions when the recruiter shared that she had sold enough Monat products to win a free car. Even though the recruiter’s story about the SUV raised her suspicions and she doubted she would ever win one herself, Minga liked the sound of financial freedom that the Monat recruiter promised enough to entertain the unusual anecdote.

Although the distinctly pyramidal structure of many direct-selling businesses is unconventional — and even eyebrow-raising, in Minga’s case — it is legal. The FTC officially defines MLMs as companies that sell their products or services through one-on-one sales, in which employees sell their brand’s product directly to others. Under precisely the right conditions, a multilevel marketing scheme isn’t dubious or exploitative, let alone against the law, yet the ground beneath that claim is less than concrete.

In a 2011 report for the FTC itself detailing the convoluted legality of multilevel marketing schemes, Consumer Awareness Institute President Jon M. Taylor put it plainly: “Worldwide feedback suggests that MLMs are also extremely viral and predatory. They feed on the product investments of a revolving door of new recruits, each subscribing to product purchases to qualify for commissions or advancement in the pyramid of participants. But for almost all newcomers, they are being sold a ticket on a flight that has already left the ground.”

In lieu of a dramatic legal takedown, the FTC urges that jobseekers exercise extreme caution and lend a critical eye to multilevel marketing recruiters who may still borrow tactics from supposedly obsolete pyramid schemes. And while the jury remains out on the total legality of multilevel marketing schemes, companies have been free to run amok and exercise their modified, legal practices on a revolving door of new recruits for decades.

FitzPatrick pointed to Herbalife Nutrition, a major multilevel marketing corporation that sells dietary supplements and has landed in hot water with the FTC in recent years. In 2013, the Los Angeles Times reported that an estimated 60% of Herbalife Nutrition’s sellers were Latino, many of whom were undocumented immigrants who couldn’t work elsewhere at companies that asked more questions and required more paperwork.

“So, Herbalife comes in and says, ‘We’ll deliver you from all that,’” FitzPatrick said. “‘We’ll solve all your problems.’”

According to FitzPatrick, who has spent decades overseeing legal fallouts over MLMs and advising national regulatory trade associations, recruitment strategies follow patterns of socioeconomic exploitation, shifting from homebound women to immigrants and, finally, to students.

When FitzPatrick first began his research in the 1990s, college students weren’t among the mothers and immigrants that MLMs had made a habit of targeting.

“You might take a part time job when you’re a student, but you really weren’t under a heavy financial pressure, and you didn’t need a lot of money,” he said. “Well, I mean, my God, that’s certainly not the case today.”

While crippling student debt and an insurmountable cost of living may seem obvious and financially devastating to anyone who’s glanced at a tuition bill on this side of the new millennium, ultimately, inexperienced students are their own worst enemies when MLM recruiters swoop into college campuses.

“You [have] got youth, inexperience, insecurity, fear, worry and real, absolute real, economic pressure,” FitzPatrick said, describing modern college students. “And, plus, not a whole lot of experience to enable them to do a lot of due diligence or critical analysis of [new job opportunities].”

Students, FitzPatrick said, are perfect candidates to be duped by the flimsy promises of multilevel marketing schemes.

A third-year who wished to remain anonymous for fear of professional retaliation heard that their friend’s job was hiring during their first year at Northeastern. They wound up spending months working for Cutco, a company that has sold kitchen knives through a multilevel network since 1949, and its younger direct-selling subsidiary arm Vector Marketing.

“This job showed up on my doorstep. I was in need of money,” they said. “And then I was like, yeah, what could go wrong?”

The student didn’t see any obvious red flags in their first weeks selling knives over Zoom from their dorm room. Even after they realized they were part of a multilevel marketing scheme, they stayed with Cutco and reasoned that as long as they didn’t recruit anyone else to join, they were more or less alright.

But when their manager began cranking up the pressure to recruit more sellers, the student decided to cut their losses and sever their ties with Cutco.

“He would want me to DM as many people as I knew on Instagram. He wanted me to download Facebook at one point so that I could communicate with my clients and then also show off what I was doing and attract more people,” the student said. “Text, Snapchat, any form of communication.”

Leaving Cutco proved more difficult than joining. The student found themself on the receiving end of several of their manager’s iMessage monologues about their obligation to the direct- selling team. He even offered to relocate the student to a Vector Marketing hub in his hometown.

“These are all things that normal businesses would never do,” FitzPatrick said. “If you go to an MLM meeting, they don’t sit down with you and say, ‘Well, here’s how this business works, and here’s how you get paid.’”

Instead, MLMs make promises about easy financial success that are difficult for students in need to pass up.

Even with the FTC’s legal blessing, decades of shifting social and economic pressures and changing generations of hungry jobseekers, MLMs are still wrapped up in manipulation. Only this time, college students are getting caught in the crosshairs.

“As a college student, it’s always been about finding success early on. I think people are kind of in love with this romanticized idea of, ‘I’m an entrepreneur and I work for myself,’” Minga said, “which is strange, because someone else is signing your paychecks.”