According to court documents, Alex Dee, formerly known as Alex Dowlatshahi, 49, of Maple Ridge, British Columbia, allegedly was the co-founder of 8FDL. Brian Kaplan, 52, of Fort Collins, Colorado, and Jerrold Maurer, 58, of North Bellmore, New York, co-founded 8FDL with Dee and participated in the scheme.
A pyramid scheme is a business model that recruits members via a promise of payments or services for enrolling others into the scheme, rather than supplying investments or sale of products. As recruiting multiplies, recruiting becomes quickly impossible, and most members are unable to profit; as such, pyramid schemes are unsustainable and often illegal.
From January 2017 through June 2019, Dee allegedly ran 8FDL as a pyramid scheme. Dee and his co-conspirators allegedly recruited participants through emails, robocalls, promotional videos, and webinars. They allegedly told consumers that 8FDL was a legitimate business with real products and lied to prospective members about how much money they could make, how much others who had joined 8FDL had made, and the ongoing costs associated with the business. For example, Dee allegedly wrote and sent mass-marketing emails claiming that typical members with no prior skills or experience could easily earn between $5,000 and $10,000 in 10 to 14 days after joining the program, and that most members were averaging two to three sales in their first 30-45 days. In fact, the vast majority of people who joined 8FDL never made any money.
Dee was arrested at the U.S.-Canada border on Tuesday while trying to enter Washington state from British Columbia. He made his initial appearance on Wednesday before a magistrate judge in the Western District of Washington.
Dee is charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and four counts of wire fraud. If convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison on each of the charged counts. Kaplan and Maurer were each charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and both pleaded guilty. They have yet to be sentenced, and each faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.
Acting Assistant Attorney General Nicole M. Argentieri of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and Inspector in Charge Eric Shen of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) Criminal Investigations Group made the announcement.
USPIS is investigating the case.
Understanding a pyramid scheme
In a pyramid scheme, an organization compels individuals who wish to join to make a payment. In exchange, the organization promises its new members a share of the money taken from every additional member that they recruit. The directors of the organization (those at the top of the pyramid) also receive a share of these payments. For the directors, the scheme is potentially lucrative—whether or not they do any work, the organization’s membership has a strong incentive to continue recruiting and funneling money to the top of the pyramid.
Such organizations seldom involve sales of products or services with value. Without creating any goods or services, the only revenue streams for the scheme are recruiting more members or soliciting more money from current members. The behavior of pyramid schemes follows the mathematics concerning exponential growth quite closely. Each level of the pyramid is much larger than the one before it. For a pyramid scheme to make money for everyone who enrolls in it, it would have to expand indefinitely. When the scheme inevitably runs out of new recruits, lacking other sources of revenue, it collapses. Since the biggest terms in this geometric sequence are at the end, most people will be in the lower levels of the pyramid; accordingly, the bottom layer of the pyramid contains the most people. The people working for pyramid schemes try to promote the actual company instead of the product they are selling. Eventually, all of the people at the lower levels of the pyramid do not make any money; only the people at the top turn a profit.
People in the upper layers of the pyramid typically profit, while those in the lower layers typically lose money. Since most of the members in the scheme are at the bottom, most participants will not make any money. In particular, when the scheme collapses, most members will be in the bottom layers and thus will not have any opportunity to profit from the scheme; still, they will have already paid to join. Therefore, a pyramid scheme is characterized by a few people (including the creators of the scheme) making large amounts of money, while subsequent members lose money. For this reason, they are considered scams.
Pyramid schemes—also referred to as franchise fraud or chain referral schemes—are marketing and investment frauds in which an individual is offered a distributorship or franchise to market a particular product. The real profit is earned, not by the sale of the product, but by the sale of new distributorships.
In the United Kingdom in 2008 and 2009, a £21 million pyramid scheme named ‘Give and Take’ involved at least 10,000 victims in the south-west of England and South Wales. Leaders of the scheme were prosecuted and served time in jail before being ordered to pay £500,000 in compensation and costs in 2015. The cost of bringing the prosecution was in excess of £1.4 million.
In 2003, the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) disclosed what it called an Internet-based “pyramid scam.” Its complaint states that customers would pay a registration fee to join a program that called itself an “internet mall” and purchase a package of goods and services such as internet mail, and that the company offered “significant commissions” to consumers who purchased and resold the package. The FTC alleged that the company’s program was instead and in reality a pyramid scheme that did not disclose that most consumers’ money would be kept, and that it gave affiliates material that allowed them to scam others.