FTC acts against Vemma and Herbalife – lessons to be learned
(See observations by Dr. Jon Taylor at the end of this article.)
FTC announced August 26, 2015, that they were halting Vemma as alleged pyramid scheme. Vemma promised unlimited income potential, but most participants lost money.
At the Federal Trade Commission’s request, a federal court has temporarily halted an alleged pyramid scheme, Vemma Nutrition Company, that lures college students and other young adults with the prospect of getting rich without having a traditional 9-to-5 job. The FTC seeks to stop the operation, which earned more than $200 million annually in 2013 and 2014 and has affected consumers throughout the United States and in more than 50 other countries, from continuing as an unlawful pyramid.
“Rather than focusing on selling products, Vemma uses false promises of high income potential to convince consumers to pay money to join their organization,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “We are also alleging that Vemma is an illegal pyramid scheme.”
Vemma is a multilevel marketing company that claims to use its members, called “affiliates,” to promote its health and wellness drinks. According to the FTC’s complaint, the defendants claim affiliates can earn substantial income by enrolling others either as affiliates or as customers, but Vemma focuses on recruitment rather than retail sales of its products to generate this income. The vast majority of participants make no money, and most of them lose money.
According to the FTC’s complaint, the defendants’ websites, social media, and marketing materials show seemingly prosperous young people with luxury cars, jets, and yachts, and falsely claim that Vemma affiliates can earn substantial incomes – as much as $50,000 per week. The defendants allegedly claim that affiliates’ earning potential is limited only by their own efforts and that Vemma provides young adults an opportunity to bypass college and student loan debt. Vemma urges consumers to make an initial investment of $500-$600 for an “Affiliate Pack” of products and business tools, buy $150 in Vemma products each month to remain eligible for bonuses, and enroll others to do the same.
Consumer losses are inevitable because Vemma is an illegal pyramid scheme that rewards affiliates for recruiting participants rather than for selling products, the FTC alleges. The defendants provide affiliates little guidance for selling products, but instead teach them to give away products as samples when recruiting new participants. Vemma offers no meaningful discounts or incentives to encourage retail sales, according to the complaint.
In addition to allegedly running an illegal pyramid scheme, the defendants are charged with making false earnings claims, failing to disclose that Vemma’s structure ensures that most people who join will not earn substantial income, and furnishing affiliates with false and misleading materials to recruit others.
The defendants are Vemma Nutrition Company, Vemma International Holdings Inc., Tom Alkazin, and Benson K. Boreyko, who is under a 1999 court order after settling with the FTC for his involvement with New Vision International Inc., a multilevel marketing company that sold nutritional supplements. The complaint names Bethany Alkazin as a relief defendant who profited from the scheme. On August 21, 2015, the court halted the deceptive practices, froze the defendants’ assets, and appointed a temporary receiver over the business pending a trial.
The Commission vote authorizing the staff to file the complaint for permanent injunction was 5-0. The order was entered by the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona on August 21, 2015.
The FTC appreciates the assistance of the Attorney General Offices of Arizona, South Carolina, and Michigan, the Tempe Police Department, and the nonprofit organization Truth in Advertising in bringing this case.
The FTC announced the following action against Herbalife on July 15, 2016: Herbalife Will Restructure Its Multi-level Marketing Operations and Pay $200 Million For Consumer Redress to Settle FTC Charges. Company must tie distributor rewards to verifiable retail product sales and stop misleading consumers about potential earnings
Herbalife International of America, Inc., Herbalife International, Inc., and Herbalife, Ltd. have agreed to fully restructure their U.S. business operations and pay $200 million to compensate consumers to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that the companies deceived consumers into believing they could earn substantial money selling diet, nutritional supplement, and personal care products.
Page from Herbalife presentation book, used from at least 2009 through 2014.
In its complaint against Herbalife, the FTC also charged that the multi-level marketing company’s compensation structure was unfair because it rewards distributors for recruiting others to join and purchase products in order to advance in the marketing program, rather than in response to actual retail demand for the product, causing substantial economic injury to many of its distributors.
“This settlement will require Herbalife to fundamentally restructure its business so that participants are rewarded for what they sell, not how many people they recruit,” FTC Chairwoman Ramirez said. “Herbalife is going to have to start operating legitimately, making only truthful claims about how much money its members are likely to make, and it will have to compensate consumers for the losses they have suffered as a result of what we charge are unfair and deceptive practices.”
According to the FTC’s complaint, Herbalife claims that people who participate can expect to quit their jobs, earn thousands of dollars a month, make a career-level income, or even get rich. But the truth, as alleged in the FTC complaint, is that the overwhelming majority of distributors who pursue the business opportunity earn little or no money.
For example, as stated in the complaint, the average amount that more than half the distributors known as “sales leaders” received as reward payments from Herbalife was under $300 for 2014. According to a survey Herbalife itself conducted, which is described in the complaint, Nutrition Club owners spent an average of about $8,500 to open a club, and 57 percent of club owners reported making no profit or losing money.
The small minority of distributors who do make a lot of money, according to the complaint, are compensated for recruiting new distributors, regardless of whether those recruits can sell the products they are encouraged to buy from Herbalife.
Finding themselves unable to make money, the FTC’s complaint alleges, Herbalife distributors abandon Herbalife in large numbers. The majority of them stop ordering products within their first year, and nearly half of the entire Herbalife distributor base quits in any given year.
The settlement announced today requires Herbalife to revamp its compensation system so that it rewards retail sales to customers and eliminates the incentives in its current system that reward distributors primarily for recruiting. It mandates a new compensation structure in which success depends on whether participants sell Herbalife products, not on whether they buy products. For example:
- The company will now differentiate between participants who join simply to buy products at a discount and those who join the business opportunity. “Discount buyers” will not be eligible to sell product or earn rewards.
- Multi-level compensation that business opportunity participants earn will be driven by retail sales. At least two-thirds of rewards paid by Herbalife to distributors must be based on retail sales of Herbalife products that are tracked and verified. No more than one-third of rewards can be based on other distributors’ limited personal consumption.
- Companywide, in order to pay compensation to distributors at current levels, at least 80 percent of Herbalife’s product sales must be comprised of sales to legitimate end-users. Otherwise, rewards to distributors must be reduced.
- Herbalife is prohibited from allowing participants to incur the expenses associated with leasing or purchasing premises for “Nutrition Clubs” or other business locations before completing their first year as a distributor and completing a business training program.
Under the order, Herbalife will pay for an Independent Compliance Auditor (ICA) who will monitor the company’s adherence to the order provisions requiring restructuring of the compensation plan. The ICA will be in place for seven years and will report to the Commission, which shall have authority to replace the ICA if necessary.
The settlement also prohibits Herbalife from misrepresenting distributors’ potential or likely earnings. The order specifically prohibits Herbalife from claiming that members can “quit their job” or otherwise enjoy a lavish lifestyle.
In addition, the order imposes a $200 million judgment against Herbalife to provide consumer redress, including money for consumers who purchased large quantities of Herbalife products (such as many Nutrition Club owners, among others) and lost money. Information on the FTC’s redress program will be announced at a later date.
The Commission votes authorizing the staff to file the complaint and stipulated final order, and to issue a Statement of the Commission, were 3-0. The complaint and the stipulated final order will be filed shortly in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.
FTC NOTE: The Commission files a complaint when it has “reason to believe” that the law has been or is being violated and it appears to the Commission that a proceeding is in the public interest. Stipulated final injunctions/orders have the force of law when approved and signed by the District Court judge.
LESSONS TO BE LEARNED FROM FTC ACTIONS AGAINST VEMMA AND HERBALIFE: OBSERVATIONS BY DR. JON TAYLOR OF CONSUMER AWARENESS INSTITUTE:
The Herbalife case demonstrates how a large MLM with a powerful legal team was able to achieve a settlement that did not materially threaten the company. The $200 million settlement was pocket change for the company to pay, which amounted to an average of only $57.14 for the 350,000 victims who were to receive payments. This is only a tiny fraction of aggregate losses of many billions of dollars. And no commissions should have been allowed for “internal consumption”; i.e., sales to participants. Otherwise, Herbalife can operate as a pyramid scheme.
The Vemma case illustrates what the FTC should be doing to all MLMs using the inherently flawed and fraudulent model called multi-level marketing (MLM), or what I prefer to call “product-based pyramid schemes”. However, with over a thousand existing MLMs, it would be more cost effective to enact a rule governing MLMs. I would recommend that such a rule forbid all “pay to play” provisions, or purchases required to qualify for commissions or rank advancement. Also, no commissions should be paid for purchases of downline participants, but instead should be based solely on sales to persons not part of the pyramid of participants. Of course, these two provisions in a rule would lead to the complete downfall of the MLM industry. Leaders and participants would have to find more fair and honest income options.
Unfortunately, Edith Ramirez, the FTC chairperson who supported the action against Vemma and Herbalife, is leaving the FTC. She is likely to be replaced by a person who is sympathetic to the anti-regulatory stance of President Trump and the extreme right wing of the Republican Party.