The Dark World of Pyramid Schemes Unveiling Deception and Manipulation
Wealth2 Minutes Read

The Dark World of Pyramid Schemes Unveiling Deception and Manipulation

June 1, 2024 Share



Unmasking pyramid schemes: Five notorious scams that devastated lives. Explore the deception, manipulation, and human tragedy behind fraudulent empires.

In the shadowy corners of the financial world, a sinister trap awaits the unwary. Pyramid schemes, with their siren song of easy riches and financial independence, have lured countless dreamers into their web. But behind the glossy promises lies a brutal reality of shattered hopes and empty bank accounts.

While the mechanics of these schemes are well-documented, the true story lies in the human drama they create. What drives intelligent people to fall for these scams? How do victims cope with the aftermath? And who are the masterminds pulling the strings?

Pyramid Schemes: A Deceptive Investment Model

A pyramid scheme is a fraudulent investment model where returns are paid to early investors using funds from new recruits. These schemes thrive on continuous recruitment, creating an illusion of profitability, and participants are mainly motivated to enlist new members rather than sell products or services. The structure is inherently unstable, needing an ever-growing number of recruits to grow and sustain itself. Often, there’s no genuine product involved, or if present, it’s secondary to recruitment efforts. Pyramid schemes inevitably collapse when new recruitment slows, resulting in significant financial losses for most participants.

Distinguishing MLMs from Pyramid Schemes

While both multi-level marketing (MLM) companies and pyramid schemes involve recruitment, they operate on different principles. Legitimate MLMs focus on selling actual products or services. Participants earn commissions from their own sales and those made by their recruits. Conversely, pyramid schemes place little emphasis on product sales, concentrating primarily on recruiting new members whose fees are used to pay earlier participants.

In MLMs, earnings are based on sales performance of individuals and their teams, with income mainly driven by product sales. Pyramid schemes, however, generate earnings primarily through the recruitment of new participants, creating an unsustainable cycle. MLMs operate within legal boundaries, adhering to regulations that ensure their business model is based on product sales. Pyramid schemes are illegal in many jurisdictions, considered fraudulent due to their reliance on recruitment rather than legitimate sales.

Notorious Pyramid Schemes

Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi Scheme

Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC was founded by Bernard Madoff in 1960. Madoff, a former NASDAQ chairman, promised consistent high returns through a secretive investment strategy. He used his reputation to attract a vast network of investors, including friends, family, and charitable organisations.

In 2008, the scheme was exposed, revealing losses estimated at $64.8 billion. Madoff was arrested and sentenced to 150 years in prison in 2009. The emotional toll was immense, with many victims losing their life savings and experiencing severe mental health issues.

MMM (Mavrodi Mundial Moneybox)

MMM was founded by Sergei Mavrodi, Vyacheslav Mavrodi, and Olga Melnikova in Russia in the early 1990s. The scheme promised returns of up to 1,000% per month, primarily using new investors’ funds to pay returns to earlier investors. It capitalised on the financial instability and desperation in post-Soviet Russia.

The scheme collapsed in 1994, causing financial losses for millions of Russians. Sergei Mavrodi was eventually arrested. Many victims were left destitute, with some even committing suicide.


OneCoin was founded by Ruja Ignatova in 2014. It claimed to be a revolutionary cryptocurrency, promising high returns for purchasing its packages and recruiting others. Ignatova, known as the “Cryptoqueen”, used charismatic presentations and lavish events to build trust and excitement.

Exposed as a scam, OneCoin defrauded investors out of approximately $4 billion. Ignatova disappeared in 2017 and remains at large. The victims, spanning over 175 countries, included people who had invested their entire savings and borrowed money, leading to devastating financial and emotional consequences.


TelexFree was founded by Carlos Wanzeler and James Merrill and claimed to offer an internet phone service. Participants were encouraged to recruit others and post online adverts in return for high payouts. The scheme preyed on the immigrant community in the United States, promising financial independence.

The scheme defrauded investors out of around $3 billion and collapsed in 2014. Wanzeler fled the country, while Merrill was arrested and prosecuted. Many victims were left financially crippled, losing their homes and life savings.

Wextrust Capital

Wextrust Capital was founded by Steven Byers and Joseph Shereshevsky and claimed to invest in properties. It promised substantial returns on investments but used new investors’ funds to pay earlier investors and for personal expenses. They targeted wealthy individuals and Jewish communities.

The scheme defrauded investors of approximately $255 million. Byers and Shereshevsky were arrested in 2008 and later convicted. Victims included charities and retirement funds, causing widespread financial and emotional distress.

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