How to cope with a MLM-programmed sibling?
January 3, 2007 1:20 PM   Subscribe

My older brother, who has been swindled by MLM (multi-level marketing) scams in the past, has gotten involved in yet another. Have any of you dealt with a family member in this situation? Is there anything I can do, or do any of you have suggestions on how to cope with this?

My brother, who has some actual problems that had prevented him from doing well in school and keep him in relatively low level jobs otherwise, has always been convinced that one day he would strike it rich through running "his own" business.

In the past, he has participated in, and thrown a lot of money away on, different MLM schemes. He never makes much (if any) money off of them, but always spends a *lot* of money he does not have on materials and product to get himself started. He's older than me (now 35) and has been doing this since his early 20's. He's also never been financially stable - he has maxed out every credit card he could get his paws on, he still constantly asks my dad for money, and my parents, who now live across the country from all of their kids, get calls from collection agencies trying to get ahold of my brother. His phone is frequently disconnected because he forgets to or is unable to pay the bill. In other words, he cannot afford to spend hundreds of dollars starting up an ultimately doomed MLM business.

He finally seemed to get his act together over the past few years - he had a steady day job and actually started his own side business DJ-ing parties (which I have to admit he did a great job of, and seemed to also enjoy). Our family was really very proud of him, since he seemed to have a real talent at his DJ business.

But now he has signed up for yet another MLM scam selling detoxifying diet products and he has been calling me & e-mailing me to get me to try this wonder product *and* to become an associate under him.

I have challenged him in the past, but he spouts off marketing crap like he's in a cult or something. I reply to his insistance that I try his products or consider becoming an associate with the fact that I'm not interested in any diet products right now, that I don't have the time or inclination to sell anything ever, and that I don't want to talk business with family. Nothing seems to work. He just responds with how much he cares about me and wants me to live to old age, and that it's not a weight loss product, it's a "detox" product that everyone needs to be healthy. And that I am wasting my life working a steady 9-5 job when I could be earning income from a successful home business like him.

On one hand, I feel like I will never be able to change his mind, and that I just have to sit back and let him get burned again and again and hope that at some point he will learn.

But on the other hand, I just feel desperate. My parents have given up on talking any sense into him, and they just keep giving him loans when he's really desperate to pay a bill. There are deprogrammers for cult members. Is there anything like that for people in MLMs? Is there anything I can say or give him to read that might get through to him about how evil these companies are?

Or do I just need to keep telling him I'm not interested in his business or products, and find some way to cope with watching my brother destroy the little bit of stability he had built up for himself?
posted by catfood to Human Relations (31 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
This looks like a very good resource, if only to arm you with counterarguments: MLM Watch
posted by kmel at 1:40 PM on January 3, 2007

Response by poster: I also thought I'd mention the name of the company he is currently involved with - Isagenix - in case anyone has any extra dirt on it to share.

Googling for info about them is pointless, because the results are just people trying to sell the crap. They've got some doctor pimping their product and that Gilad guy too, but it is a pure MLM. It seems like a harmless, but stupid, diet product (Slim Fast with extra crap in it to make you poop a lot - because we all know pooping a lot is detoxifying).
posted by catfood at 1:49 PM on January 3, 2007

Maybe this is so obvious it doesn't need stating, but a quick way to delineate legitimate business opportunities from MLM scams is that legitimate businesses spend their time trying to sell a product or service, and MLM scams require you to spend the bulk of your time recruiting other people to sell the (lame) product or service.

Perhaps a serious talk with him, in which you impart the critical tools for determining whether a business opportunity is real or a scam, would help him. Most of us who have been around for a while have a bullshit detector that provides unerring guidance in seeing what opportunities are fake. He may lack that skill, yet --- but you can help him get it.

(You could pepper it with humorous illustrations, such as, "Any opportunity that is touted on late-night TV, with people who are the program's 'success stories' being interviewed with the ocean and palm trees in the background, is almost certainly a bullshit business opportunity.)
posted by jayder at 2:01 PM on January 3, 2007

OBBC America last week I watched a segment that covered the exploding trend in the U.K. for "detox" programs. They debunked the claims of the programs. I suggest your brother read the following articles. They are ikely, though, to not dissuade him on his quixotic quest for gold.
BBC News: 'No proof' detoxing diets work.

Institute of Food Technologists: Detox Diets Full of Empty Promises, according to an article (pdf) in...Food Technology magazine by diet experts Roger A. Clemens and Peter Pressman.

The Guardian: The Detox Myth
posted by ericb at 2:03 PM on January 3, 2007


They just keep giving him loans when he's really desperate.

That's your family's problem.

Money may be an effective palliative for financial problems, but it won't solve the underlying issue; it will simply delay the realization that continued survival will demand different tactics.

If your parents are adamant about 'helping' your brother following his next crash-and-burn, you should strongly suggest they make their assistance contingent on your brother submitting to psychiatric care (for his obviously compulsive behavior) and financial oversight.

This sort of oversight may require a significant investment of time from yourself and/or your parents, but may be the best strategy for long-term rehabilitation.

A small note: I've seen non-trivial inheritances dissolve in the hands of the unwise before. If it is not already, try to ensure that whatever money your parents stand to bequeath is well-protected if the worst should happen.
posted by The Confessor at 2:04 PM on January 3, 2007

*On BBC*
posted by ericb at 2:04 PM on January 3, 2007

Response by poster: I appreciate the advice jayder, but we've tried this before. His problem is that he sees MLMs as the *best* way to make money because once he recruits enough associates, he won't have to worry about selling the product, and can kick back and relax on his fucking yacht.

He really does not think rationally, and refuses to see how MLMs are pyramid scams. He is very gullible in general, which seems related to some of his (severe) learning disabilities. Think *no* rational thinking skills. He thinks the experts who debunk shit are the real con-artists, while those who claim to get rich off MLMs are his idols.

This is why I feel so hopeless & desperate. It is also worth noting that he has heard all of the reasons why MLMs don't work from my parents & myself & other friends over and over again. I think part of his attraction is that he is confident that one day, if he just works hard enough, he will prove us all wrong and be our hero.

It's killing me. It really breaks my heart in a way I can't explain.
posted by catfood at 2:09 PM on January 3, 2007

Response by poster: The Confessor - I know they shouldn't do it, and have told them. They know they shouldn't do it too, but they do it anyway like feeding a begging dog table scraps or something. Addicts & enablers both run in my family. On a brighter note, my dad did put me as the sole beneficiary in his will already though (with the understanding that in a necessary case I will not let my brother, like, die). My brother inherited a not-trivial sum from my grandmother and it's long gone.
posted by catfood at 2:15 PM on January 3, 2007

I'm so sorry! That sounds really painful.

I can't think of a more delicate way to ask this, but is it possible that, in addition to his learning disabilities, your brother has some kind of bipolar thing happening? Could that possibly be an element at work here?

Also, I'm sure that your family doesn't need me poking my nose in and asking this, but are his learning disabilities severe enough that he is perhaps simply unable to make sound financial decisions on his own? Is this something talking to a social worker about your family's options for protecting your brother might help?

(I'm sorry if I'm asking dense questions-- it's not clear to me just how learning-disordered he is.)
posted by thehmsbeagle at 2:17 PM on January 3, 2007

I don't know how much you can do, since he seems unwilling to listen to rational arguments. Perhaps he just needs to learn the lesson on his own - as has been mentioned, your parents need to stop bailing him out when he ultimately fails. Maybe he'll learn that the risk of failure (even if he sees that risk as small) is too negatively impactful on his life to be worthwhile.

Often, it seems, people like this don't respond well to arguments, but might respond, if at least grudgingly, to an impactful experience.
posted by Kololo at 2:19 PM on January 3, 2007

Someone I know's father got hooked like that, and his family initiated a mental competancy hearing to have his assets put under some kind of trustee. They never got the ruling, but they sent the petition paperwork and some kind of cease and desist to the supplier, who then stopped dealing with the father (taking his money.)
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:21 PM on January 3, 2007

Catfood -- I understand. A couple of people I know have gotten wrapped up in these MLM schemes before, and what makes it so difficult to confront them (at least, in my observation) is their palpable excitement about the opportunity. When they're crowing about what a great business it is, how much money they're going to make, etc., it's difficult to be the nay-saying spoilsport who's going to rain on their parade.
posted by jayder at 2:30 PM on January 3, 2007

This is going to sound very harsh, but as is the case with so many alcoholics, addicts and fuckups in general, sometimes you just have to distance yourself and let them either continue the behavior, or discover on their own that it's time for change. To hit rock bottom, as they say.

The first step toward doing this would be to convince your parents to stop enabling this behavior by loaning him money. Perhaps an eviction or a lengthy period of no phone will hammer some sense into him. Or, sadly, perhaps you will have to accept that this is his destiny.

good luck.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 2:33 PM on January 3, 2007

There's one in every family.

The only way I've found to have a relationship with my brother is to get of my high horse, politely tell him I'm not interested in participating, and wish him luck with whatever he's trying to do at the moment. He doesn't make fun of my dreams in life, and I don't make fun of his.

Is there anything I can say or give him to read that might get through to him about how evil these companies are?

No, because they're seldom actually evil. Financially dubious and unwise to get involved with? Yes. But then so is buying lottery tickets, and people do that all the time.

And let's face it, the draw of MLMs is very similar to the lottery. Sure, nobody you know has won, but somebody, somewhere did. And if they did, you can too. It's an irrefutable argument.

In any case, you need to relax and let your brother make his own choices.
posted by tkolar at 2:35 PM on January 3, 2007

Oh, and the concept of "MLM-programmed" seems a little out-of-place here. Your brother wants to be independently wealthy -- no MLM programmed that into him.

If you're going to hold him in contempt, you should at least be doing it for the right reason. He's both greedy and impatient, and everything else flows fairly naturally from there.
posted by tkolar at 2:41 PM on January 3, 2007

I have a friend who is into this same stuff. Everytime I see him, which is usually at a party with our friends, I ask him loudly, in front of other people "Hey, how's that pyramid scheme going?".

I'm not sure if it is working or not, but it sure is fun!
posted by Big_B at 2:44 PM on January 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

I think there's truth to above about stopping the enabling behavior. There's no incentive not to get into another MLM if he keeps getting bailed out. That said, I assume you are more successful than he, does he look up to you at all? (not sure with him being older) but if he does, it might help to drill into him your approval for his steady job and DJ business and put distance during these MLM manic episodes. After 15 years and not having one pay off (no surprise there) maybe some disappointment will pay off if he sees what pleases you and your family most.

I'd go so far as to get him one of those Tony Robbins motivational infomercial kits that I think just say to set some goals and then don't do anything that doesn't work toward that goal - including wasting time and money on MLM crap and concentrate on his job and his DJ business.
Even those seem MLM-ish to me so might appeal to his zeal for that and if he has the tenacity to stick to MLMs why not something more positive.

If detox pills worked, the pharmaceutical companies with multi billion dollar R&D programs would be making a killing on it years ago - if it existed. I dont get people who fall for these and other MLMs but I undertand the pain it causes those who care for them to see them throw good time and future away on such things. I hope your brother finds reason.
posted by clanger at 2:59 PM on January 3, 2007

You and your family might be interested in reading through the Herbalife/Work From Home (MLM) Chronicles at . If nothing else the feature on unsuccess stories might help your parents to stop supporting the after effects of these scams and give all of you more tools useful for talking to your brother and hopefully convincing him that, in all likelihood, his investment in these programs is futile.

Best of luck.
posted by rosebengal at 3:06 PM on January 3, 2007

It's an irrational behavior. As long as someone is supporting his delusion, he'll continue.

Is there any possibility that you could present these arguments to your parents instead to get them to cut off the money hose? If they insist on enabling him, you're just going to have to grit your teeth and let them all go down together.
posted by matildaben at 3:07 PM on January 3, 2007

Everytime I see him... I ask him loudly, in front of other people "Hey, how's that pyramid scheme going?". I'm not sure if it is working or not, but it sure is fun!

Same joke works w/r/t fundamentalists. Everytime someone says the rapture is coming within the next (x) years, I ask them to sign over all their property to me in (x) + 1, since clearly they won't need it any more. That way everyone will see how truly they believe and they'll probably inspire others.

It's amazing how math can test resolve.

Catfood, does your brother also often fall for non-financial cults, like fad diets or religious movements? If so, he may have a psychological condition that can be treated.
posted by rokusan at 3:07 PM on January 3, 2007

My dad's business card says "naturopath". He's into Human Energy Restoration, muscle testing, iridology, radionic diagnosis and so forth. He's a very bright guy, but since he retired from teaching high school physics and chemistry his powers of critical reasoning seem to have utterly evaporated. He's spent thousands of dollars on bullshit electronic healing and diagnostic aids (I'm not sure if he actually owns a Rife Machine, but the stuff he's been sold is of that general character).

He's been applying these techniques to patients for over ten years now. He's convinced and convincing, he gets repeat business, and I am shit-scared that one day he's going to take on a patient who actually has something seriously wrong, divert them away from an evidence-based treatment that could actually help them, and cause them some serious harm as a result. He's a generous, sensitive man, and I think killing somebody by mistake would wreck him.

We used to have a lot of unproductive disagreement about this stuff. I used to express skepticism and try to show him exactly how badly he was being ripped off by gadget and snake-oil scamsters, but he's just got way too much emotional investment in the woo-woo worldview to let any of it go. He's absolutely convinced that what he does works (for some slippery and variable definition of "works") and really doesn't seem the least bit interested in the "how".

So I know pretty much where you're coming from with your desire to deprogram your brother. It really, really sucks to watch somebody you care about do stupid, stupid things. "Breaking my heart in a way I can't explain" is absolutely 100% spot-on.

But ultimately, you can't let it kill you. It sucks less for one of you to crash and burn than for both of you to do so.

I don't get mad at Dad any more. I figure I've done as much to help him see through the bullshit as could possibly have been done, and he still hasn't changed his course; the only thing to do is keep reminding myself that ultimately it's his life, he's responsible for his own decisions and there really isn't anything I can or should be doing about that.

But every time he's all "yippee!" about having used his radionically harmonized vial kit to figure out that some patient's long-standing "liver condition" is actually due to a whiff of pesticide residue on a tomato they ate when they were fifteen, I still just want to weep.
posted by flabdablet at 3:46 PM on January 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

It's not strictly true to say that MLM schemes "don't work". Clearly they work for the people who come up with them and are on top of the pyramid. They just don't work for the people at the bottom.

If your brother wants to be rich, then he shouldn't be joining someone else's MLM scheme, he should be coming up with his own. Perhaps that proposition would interest him?
posted by AmbroseChapel at 3:49 PM on January 3, 2007

Here's my perspective from being in a similar situation with my scam-and-MLM-prone dad. Like yourself and flabdablet, I've spent countless hours worrying how to convince a loved one to listen to reason and not throw their life away. In the end, I decided that nothing I say would matter because he's not deciding with the logical part of his brain. It's similar to convincing a religious person to abandon their faith; in both cases there's absolutely nothing you can say to convince them, but you CAN jeopardize your relationship with them, which will last far longer than whatever it is they fell for. So while I avoid talking to him about his business, I focus on being the most supportive son I can be in every other aspect. I've been much happier after making the decision not to let the scams come between our relationship.

That being said, you might be able to tactfully present him with some information to chew on without damaging your relationship. I'd recommend giving him some fundamental financial book(s) as a gift and saying, "I just finished this book and it's great. Here it is in case you might be interested." Some good ones I recommend, by the way, are The Automatic Millionaire and Winning With The Market (the audiobook for the former is excellent).
posted by deepbeep at 4:12 PM on January 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

One approach that can work if you can catch him at the right moment is to get him to write down how much money he'll be making at a certain date in the future, encouraging him to be conservative, and see if he will promise you to drop the program if he doesn't meet that modest goal. In return, you promise to shut up about it completely until then. One of the most powerful hooks in these things is the payoff right around the corner that keeps getting delayed for one reason or another.

If you can get him to document his expectations at this moment in time, when he fails to meet them, he'll have proof that it wasn't what he thought it was.

Granted, we don't knoe enough about your relationship to know if he'll agree to this, but it's one way to get a little reality through to an infected mind.
posted by ulotrichous at 4:28 PM on January 3, 2007

Ever heard of Al-Anon? Originally founded to help families and friends of alcoholics cope with the effects of alcoholism, its ideas and principles can help many others.

Clearly, you're being radically affected by your brother's actions.

Ultimately, that's YOUR problem, not his. I say this with no judgment and the greatest compassion. So, the bottom line is that you must take action yourself, regardless of any changes he does or does not make.

Alanon zeroes in on dealing with OUR powerlessness in the face of someone else's behavior. It's saved my ass from alcoholics, love-gone-bad relationships, violence, and a myriad of other things.

I wish you the best!
posted by lometogo at 7:07 PM on January 3, 2007

Or you could at least read "Co-Dependant No More"

In any case, here's what I might say to your parents: He will change his behaviour when he perceives the pain of changing as being less than the pain of not changing. To spare him the pain caused by his behaviour is to support the behaviour.
posted by winston at 8:04 PM on January 3, 2007

I think you need to get tough. By that, I mean come up with a mantra and repeat it to him verbatim every time the subject comes up. "XYZ is a scam and a waste of your time." Maybe you could change the wording somewhat, but come up with a short, decisive sentence that explains your frustration with his infatuation and expresses that you want nothing at all to do with it. Say it over and over to him until he changes the subject or hangs up or whatever. Don't try to engage in debunking, don't try to show him evidence (as it's clear by this point that you've tried that and it just doesn't work.) You just need a mantra to keep repeating into his head that the subject isn't even on the table for debate, that you want nothing at all to do with this topic. He's free to waste his time and money, but you'll have nothing to do with it, not even talking about it. You may have to be a little rude, but from reading what you're written it looks like all the other avenues have failed, so it's time just so be firm and resolute with him whenever the subject comes up.
posted by Rhomboid at 9:40 PM on January 3, 2007

Oh, catfood, I am so sorry you have to deal with this situation. You clearly have lots of empathy and mercy for your brother.

Remember how lucky you are not to have the problems that he has, and remember that you don't know how it is to live in his skin and walk in his shoes.

From his point of view, he is desperately trying to please a family that probably seems smarter, saner, and more successful than he does. He probably feels like dog shit and broken. This feeling is incredibly stressful and probably further impairs his judgement. He could be full of resentment at himself.

Most of the work will be his, if he wishes to change, but there are things you can do to encourage this wish:

Does the family link financial attainment and/or success to self worth, consciously or unconsciously? If so, then the people who are most influential in your brother's life should acknowledge this. Does the family bear any responsibility for your brother's impairment (i.e. abuse)? If so, they should acknowledge this.

These are acknowledgements, not admissions that anything is owed to your brother.. these things happen in the best meaning families. They are a way to help him feel better about himself and to accept joining a collective effort to solve his problems.

The family gatherings, if expensive, should stop being so. No more expensive holidays - price things at a level your brother can afford to contribute to and share. Maybe give him a chance to be hospitable at the holidays some time.

Writing him out of the will probably hurts a lot for him too - could you ask your parents to share the money out with him, but to put it in trust (with you or someone else who loves him and doesn't look down on him) as a trustee for his share? Or even a third party for both of your shares. Not fair or just, perhaps, but solution-oriented.
posted by By The Grace of God at 2:33 AM on January 4, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for your suggestions. I know my parents should stop enabling him, but I have as much control over their actions and I do over my brother's.

The more I think about it and look over these responses, the more I am letting it sink in that I can't make this my problem. I have my own issues to deal with and can only offer advice & (emotional) support to someone who wants it. In the meantime, I guess I just have to do what I can by continuing to refuse to participate in his schemes or buying any of his products, and by continuing to state that I am against the idea of both MLM and detox diets.
posted by catfood at 7:50 AM on January 4, 2007 [2 favorites]

To take deepbeep's idea a bit further, are there any successful entreprenuers that you know or that he know's that could mentor him, or he could be introduced to? Focus his money-making energies along with someone, flesh and blood, that could teach him more in an hour than an infomercial?

Or maybe present it to your parents that if they really want to help, they should offer to pay for him to take some basic business and entreprenurial classes at the local adult-ed/community college? Even if he can't learn with the best of them, maybe he could partner up with someone...
posted by iurodivii at 8:09 AM on January 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Im with Deepbeep too, there must be something he can do that isnt a scam, but makes money although money never grows on trees, so obviously work is involved. anything that involves genuine work tends to make positive money rather trying to recover ones prior expenses which I imagine tends to ultimately fail in MLM schemes. Even if he wont accept it as an alternative theres always "make some positive money in a different way in order to pay for the MLM stuff". that way he rather than your parents pays for his own mistakes. kind of circular really.
posted by browolf at 4:58 PM on November 6, 2007

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