start | page two | sample signup | 400 signups

A pyramid scheme is the name for a scam that coerces people to both contribute money and help promote the program.

The first time I saw one was in the dorms at U.C. Santa Barbara.

It was a sign-up sheet, overlapping the image of an airplane. For the signup price of $25, you could get in at the "passenger level" at the bottom. All you had to do was wait until the other passenger slots were full, then everyone moved up a slot and you got to be a flight attendant on a new printout. 


Next, you helped recruit people below you in the new, empty passenger level. Once those seats were full, you moved up one more level to a co-pilot slot.

If the passenger seats filled up again, you were the pilot, the boss of your own sheet, with the help of your crew, finding new passengers to pay $25 each. When all the passenger seats were full, you walked away with $200.

It is pretty obvious what is going to happen in the long run. Once a bunch of these airplane printouts start circulating, people no longer sign up because they don't think they will be able to find new suckers. If they don't make it to the pilot's seat, they lose their money. The whole scheme collapses.

In late 2002, a gigantic, pricey pyramid scheme was busted near Sacramento.

It was called the "women helping women" program, also known as "the spirit of giving", and it worked in a very similar way, but entry was $5,000 and the bait was a $40,000 payoff at the top. It had transferred about 12 million dollars before it was stopped.

Four women arrested in October 2002 face charges that could bring five years in prison. They are Cheryl Bean, Anne Marie King, Pam Garibaldi and Cathy Lovely.

Instead of the positions in an airplane, the positions were named after serving courses: "Appetizer Line", "Soup and Salad Line", "Entree Line." and finally the "Dessert Line." 

Not to be left out, a men-focused scheme was functioning (although on a smaller scale) in Maine.

It was called the NASCAR club or the Men's Club. The levels were labeled "Fans", "Pit Crew", "Crew Chiefs", and finally "Driver". 

Another Scheme in Maine called itself "Changing Lives" and named the levels after Freshmen, Sophmore, Juniors and Seniors.

It is easy to imagine new variations of this scheme, with cleverly- named ascending levels. Here is an illustration for a scheme based on the food chain:

I asked Tara for some ideas about potential new pyramid naming schemes and she came up with these level titles in a few minutes:

CEO, VP, middle management, employee
Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus, Elves, Reindeer
Tiffany's, Nordstrom, Target, K-Mart
Pashmina, Cashmere, Wool, Polyester
Disney World, Euro Disney, Disneyland, The Disney Store
Prime Rib, Sirloin, Ground Round, Chuck
Golden Retrievers, Poodles, Basset Hounds, Mutts
Kingdom, Class, Order, Species
James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Margaret Atwood, Stephen King
John, Paul, George, Ringo
Moby Dick, the Shark from Jaws, The Little Mermaid, Free Willy
Charlie Bucket, Veruca Salt, Mike Teevee, Augustus Gloop

Sometimes the levels don't even have names.

People who are higher up in the pyramid are called your "upline'. People branching down from you are called your "downline".


When the scheme will fail is difficult to predict. If the pyramid scheme is presented to a large community of people (such as my dorm), it may entice 100 or 200 people, growing to seven or eight levels high. 

An Air Force base might provide more easy victims. Any place that has a large group of people with a lot of free time and a little extra money is a potential place for a pyramid scheme to pop up.

The ultimate pool of potential victims is the world wide web.

Please read page two of Pyramid Schemes

start | page two | sample signup | 400 signups | Contact Rob

Last updated February 10th, 2003. Terms and Conditions Copyright 2003