Should I mind my own business about this pyramid scheme?
April 4, 2016 1:35 AM   Subscribe

A friend of mine has posted on facebook asking people to join a "book exchange" where you buy a book and get "approximately 36" back. This is clearly a pyramid scheme... should I say something?

This is a well known hoax going round the internet, and it's details make it clearly a pyramid scheme. As such, the majority of participants will see no return on their investment.

I was tagged in the post as a possible taker, and ignored it, but can't decide whether to comment for others benefit. In practical terms it's the cost of one book (plus postage I guess), which is a minor loss really, but it is a scam. The person posting is presumably already part of the scheme, and may well be offended if I point out what's going on. Is it worth saying something here?
posted by Cannon Fodder to Human Relations (24 answers total)
I should mention that I'm in the UK if anyone wants to discuss legal concerns.
posted by Cannon Fodder at 1:36 AM on April 4, 2016

No way!! I got tagged in a post like this too, but I had NO IDEA it was a pyramid scheme. I am 100% certain the person who tagged me didn't know, either. I've known them for many years and they'd never knowingly involve themselves in anything remotely dodgy.

I think it's worth messaging the person who posted privately to let them know it's a scam (as commenting on the thread might be embarrassing to someone who posted it in good faith). They can then take the post down.
posted by Ziggy500 at 1:46 AM on April 4, 2016 [5 favorites]

Let the person who made the post know via private message, with documentation. They probably aren't aware this is fake-- to be fair, this isn't a big huge make-you-rich scam, this is more like a chain letter from foreign parts scam...
posted by frumiousb at 1:50 AM on April 4, 2016 [7 favorites]

I'm assuming you've seen this snopes post but you might want to pass it along to the friend.

Gift exchange info on snopes.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 2:00 AM on April 4, 2016 [4 favorites]

So if 36 people are to send books to your friend, and 36 more people send books to you, that means there have to be 36 x 36 participants on your level, and 36 x 36 x 36 right below you --- doesn't anyone do the basic math?!? You run out of people on the whole •planet• real soon with these things.

I'm afraid I'd call this book thing even more of an scam than most chain letter though, because an actual physical item is being sent --- and YMMV, but yes I would tell your friend so.
posted by easily confused at 2:15 AM on April 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

I had a friend who was taken in by one of these schemes (which involved cash) many years ago. She was targeted very soon after she had come into an inheritance. I tried to tell her that it was obviously a scam. I pointed out all the flaws in the plan. I asked her to think about how it could possibly work. She absolutely refused to believe me. She wasn't stupid, but she was convinced that "this plan is different". She was introduced to someone who had supposedly received the promised cash. She was very offended that I would think her so naive as to fall for a pyramid scheme.

In other words, you can tell people, but sometimes they just don't want to hear.

My friend never saw a penny of her money back.
posted by Samarium at 2:20 AM on April 4, 2016 [8 favorites]

Interesting. I don't think I'd call it a pyramid scheme. It reminds me more of chain letters as a teenager. Which didn't cost anything but definitely stressed me out. I got a recipe chain letter a few months back - short chain, request to send to 5 people, I thought "why not?". I should have got 125 recipes. I got two. One of which involved a box of yellow cake mix as a key ingredient.

So yeah, your friend is not going to fill up a bookcase as a result of this chain. She'll be lucky to get even one book. And it may not be a book she wants. You can warn her. Or you can just check in with her in a few weeks after its dawned on her that these things don't work. For the price of a book (and postage), she's learned a lesson that will stick when cash-related schemes pyramid schemes come her way.
posted by finding.perdita at 4:40 AM on April 4, 2016 [10 favorites]

All I felt obliged to say when I was tagged in those was that I personally was going to be unable to participate.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 4:41 AM on April 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yeah, a "pyramid scheme" generally entails enriching people at the top of the "pyramid," and what you're describing doesn't sound like it has that level of organization. The setup is probably closer to a chain letter, as finding.perdita described above. These are usually pretty benign (you expect 36 letters, or recipes, or whatever, but usually receive 0-2 instead), but since this requires buying and shipping a book, participants will lose out on some money and may not receive any return on it.

Quick test to determine if this is a "chain letter" or a "pyramid scheme": Are you required to buy the book from a particular source, or are you left to your own devices? If all you're doing is purchasing a book on your own and sending it to a provided address, this is not a pyramid scheme. Nobody at "the top" is benefiting. That doesn't mean it's worth your time or money, but chain letters are generally more benign than multi-level marketing scams.

The person posting is presumably already part of the scheme, and may well be offended if I point out what's going on.

Again, this assumes there's a "scheme" to be part of. Chain letters, IMO, are a waste of time and money, but unless you're literally sending a wad of cash through the mail, this is more of an annoyance than a "scheme." Your friend will likely be disappointed if nobody responds, but unless I'm missing something significant, they're not about to lose their life savings over this--and if they're tagging people to participate in the chain, chances are they've already purchased and sent their book, so there's probably not much you can do. If you want to respond, you can just say, "No thanks, I've read about this kind of thing and it doesn't sound like anyone ever really gets a return on their investment, so I'd rather not participate."
posted by duffell at 5:12 AM on April 4, 2016 [12 favorites]

Oh, and if your friend gets indignant that you're opting out (because they went and bought a book with the belief that they'd get a ton of free books from people down the chain), that's what we call "shitty friend behavior." You are not obligated to invest time and money in this just because your friend decided to. You probably know that already, but just in case you're made to feel guilty about this, let me be your fairy godmother here by saying "fuck that noise."
posted by duffell at 5:18 AM on April 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

Is it worth saying something here?

Of course it is. As a general rule, if you have something to say [and it's not hateful], say something. That applies even if some random facebook person "may well be offended" by your words.

You've probably put more thought into this already than your friend did before posting it to begin with. You say they "presumably" have opted in themselves, so it sounds as if they aren't actively pitching something they're heavily invested in, they're just reposting a thing they were tagged in.

I doubt you need to be terribly concerned though. The most anyone would be out would be the cost of a book and postage.
posted by headnsouth at 5:56 AM on April 4, 2016

Chain letter scams, with the promise of $ or goods, are illegal in the US -- does the UK have similar legislation?

I've seen friends targeted by similar stuff on FB; without exception they have been thankful for the heads-up and eager to tell everybody else it's a racket. The people that then hear it's a racket can be a little problematic, a little MLMy -- "don't listen to negativity!" But if your friend is reasonably bright, yeah, step in.

The USPS does the math for you; here is the page that mentions "they're illegal if they request money or other items of value."

Just be matter-of-fact about it; there's no need to feel bad about saying "This is a scam. Here is some more information that explains it." You can soft-soap it with "a lot of people fall for it" or similar. "I wish it worked, ha ha," etc.
posted by kmennie at 6:02 AM on April 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

I managed to stop a very gullible friend of mine from joining a pyramid scheme once by sending them a link to a frankly marvelous website that carefully outline how the scam work with lots of details at every step. I think my email to him said something like "That sounds great, but it reminded me of this thing I read and I'm worried this might go badly, could you look at this website and tell me if it reminds you of what your are signing up for?"

He dropped out of the scam and I got a nice thank you.
posted by lepus at 6:18 AM on April 4, 2016 [14 favorites]

I feel like the main way chain letters hurt people is by making them feel stupid for believing in them, so if someone's already posted and tagged people they're either going to quietly feel stupid in a few weeks/months when they don't get any books, or they're going to feel stupid in front of you when you tell them the truth.

I guess if you think your friend or someone else tagged in the post would really be counting on getting these books, it might be worth saying something, but I also feel like most people I know who would do something like this are at least vaguely aware that chain letters don't really yield what you think they're going to, and they would just say something like "But even if I only get one book, it's fun!"

I remember doing chain letters where you send a postcard back in the dark ages when I was in elementary school, and I don't think I ever got a single postcard back, and I was disappointed, but I was a child, and it was postcards. (So that's how I would address it - "I'm still waiting for the 100 postcards I was supposed to get from that Brownies chain letter in 1986!")
posted by mskyle at 6:33 AM on April 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think you should just ignore it. you can choose to not participate. my friend invited me to join one of these children's book "schemes." I went on Amazon and sent a ~$4 book to one person, and in return my baby recieved about seven books in the mail? not an entire library, which I didn't expect, but no harm done.
posted by sabh at 6:44 AM on April 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

It's not a scam exactly - although it is a pyramid, it's a very short pyramid limited to three levels. The true MLM scams have a percentage of every sale at the serf level paying up to every level above them, which could be 10 different people, and the only way to get returns is to get at least 3 levels built below you. This is safer and less scammy, in that all your friend is doing is asking you tell your friends to send her a book, and then she's out of the loop. That said, do you really want to be in a position of asking favors of your friends to benefit her? Some people are fine with that, others less so - and the pain and awkwardness really comes in when someone who is not at all fine with it is somehow pressured to participate. So don't do it if you don't want to. Tell your friend you don't want to, and why, but calling it a scam might be a bit harsh - it's naive, but there's no evil mastermind raking in megabucks in this book exchange.
posted by aimedwander at 7:34 AM on April 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

I mean I guess it's technically a pyramid, but it's a pretty shallow, limited-payback one that involves sending books to friends and friends of friends. As such, it's a pyramid in its most benign form.

If this is a friend for whom buying a few books is a significant financial hardship I'd mention it, but otherwise it's just a fun little game of chance with a low barrier to entry. Just tell them you're not playing.
posted by tchemgrrl at 8:29 AM on April 4, 2016

This is totally and completely in every way possible a pyramid scheme. Some people think that a pyramid scheme has to have more than 2 levels, and I'm pretty sure that's why 2-level pyramid schemes like this pyramid scheme are so easy to get sucked into. Pyramid schemes always end up screwing some of the participants, and since this is a pyramid scheme designed to be shared with friends and acquaintances, I'd send a private message to the friend explaining your concerns. I think a public comment saying "Hey, this is a pyramid scheme, and those always screw some participants" is just going to get a bunch of comments telling you either 1) you're wrong that this is a pyramid scheme, 2) you're ruining other people's fun.
posted by 23skidoo at 9:14 AM on April 4, 2016

This might also be a version of a "bicycle smuggling" scheme, where the objective is email addresses, not a shallow book exchange pyramid. I'm not sure if phish bots actually any longer need to do this to get email lists; and anyhow if you are on facebook you probably already are included in that loop.

Anyway, reply with a light-hearted ha ha, no thanks and a Snopes link.

If your friend is defensive, ask her to get back to you in a few weeks to let you know how it turns out.
posted by mule98J at 9:40 AM on April 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

You should make a comment saying something along the lines of "This looks fishy. Thanks for the offer but I'm not interested. Did you look into this before signing up? I just don't want to see you get ripped off."

It's direct but relatively polite. You're just raising your suspicions. It's the nice thing to do to warn your friend if you think they're getting scammed. If she gets offended or defensive or your comment gets deleted, that's on her. You did your job as a friend to warn her of a potential scam. You can't hold her her hand and force her to do anything.

If she chooses to ignore you, then if and when she gets scammed, (hopefully) she'll have learned her lesson next time something like this comes around. If she can't wisen up to a scam or take some good advice, then experience will be her teacher.
posted by atinna at 11:34 AM on April 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

"Not for me, thanks. Chain letters, pyramid schemes, multi-level marketing and the like are things I've chosen never to get involved in."

Then completely fail to respond to any followup.
posted by flabdablet at 11:39 AM on April 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

I would slightly worry that this "outs" them as someone vulnerable to these type of schemes, a sort of grooming. Otherwise I can think the price of a book is just about the perfect pain level for "learned a lesson once"
posted by Iteki at 9:42 PM on April 4, 2016

Thanks for all the responses! I've decided not to say anything, as a different friend promoting the same scheme had several comments pointing out the nature of the scheme. They have commented on that post as well, so must be aware of this at this point. I don't think adding my voice would change much.
posted by Cannon Fodder at 12:25 AM on April 5, 2016

You may want to post this website: which is about a 1:1 book trading with a want list, etc. Very easy to get rid of books you don't want anymore to people who *do* want them. I used it for years before I switched largely to kindle and don't recall ever being "stiffed" by a bookmoocher. Not sure it's still active but I'd be surprised if it's not.
posted by shownomercy at 7:25 PM on April 5, 2016

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