"Is my plan legal?" Not a week goes by that I'm not asked this question. Sometimes the question is couched in a slightly different fashion ("Is my plan a pyramid?"), but regardless of the terminology used, those posing the question universally expect an answer based on my review of their compensation plan as it is presented on paper. This highlights the overwhelming misperception among network marketing executives that they have nothing to worry about from the Federal Trade Commission or State Attorneys General so long as their compensation plan is not a pyramid. Nothing could be further from the truth.In reality, the FTC and the AGs rarely initiate attacks on network marketers based on the structure of their compensation plans. Only gifting clubs, airplane schemes, and other easily recognizable Ponzi schemes are attacked up-front with pyramid allegations. In the case of network marketing programs, regulators focus first and foremost on the conduct of the company and its sales force to determine if they are engaging in unfair or deceptive consumer practices in their sales and marketing techniques. Since this is what regulators look at first, network marketing companies are well advised to follow the regulators' lead.
In the last decade all of the major FTC lawsuits against network marketing companies were initially instituted under the broad umbrella of deceptive trade practices. This is because unfair and deceptive consumer practices are much easier to identify and prosecute than are pyramid schemes. There is little technical expertise required to identify abusive consumer practices, so the courts readily issue restraining orders and asset freezes when requested to do so by the FTC. In contrast, pyramid cases quickly become murky because distinguishing a pyramid scheme from a legitimate network marketing business is not always clear-cut.
Once regulators have the necessary evidence to make out the easy case of unfair or deceptive conduct, they will then proceed with the more difficult task of assembling a pyramid case against the defendant company and its principals. They know that even if they lose the pyramid battle, they will most likely win on the deceptive conduct theories. Therefore, companies must focus should on their internal and field sales and recruiting practices.
This is actually good news! We have substantial historical guidance identifying conduct commonly practiced by network marketers that regulators attack as deceptive or unfair. Therefore, when analyzing a program for legal compliance, companies must take stock of their in-house and field practices to ensure it's not treading in the same minefields as those that have fallen before them. So where do the mines lay? Here are the most common:
We could go on as the huckster's imagination for deception is seemingly limitless. But the above are common practices every network marketing company should look out for in its own internal practices and the conduct of its distributors. Sure you need to pay attention to the structural elements of your compensation plan to ensure its legality, just don't lose sight of the fact that it is everyday deceptive conduct that really catches regulators' attention and presents a much easier target!