A Decades-Old Pyramid Scheme Is Making A Comeback On Instagram

One thing I love about the 2000s is how every trend just gets regurgitated. Tie-dye from middle school? I never thought that would be popular again, but here we are and it’s all the rage. Chokers had their moment in the early 2000s and again for the past few years. But not all reemerging trends are good ones—some should just stay buried. For example, I really never wanted to see low-rise jeans make a comeback. And another thing? Chain emails. Although in modern times, chain emails tend to be less of actual emails you forward on to everyone in your contact list, and more of random memes that circulate the internet that your parents and older relatives fall for (like that one that claims drinking water will kill coronavirus because… stomach acids kill the virus). Well, there’s a new chain in town—and by “in town” I mean “circulating the internet”, one that promises a return of $800, guaranteed, if you just “buy in” by sending $100 to a stranger via Cash App. That’s right, folks, we’ve got a good old fashioned pyramid scheme mixed with a chain email on our hands. We love a good crossover episode. But before you fork over $100 of your stimulus check, let’s think through why this “new” money-making scheme might be a bad investment.

Because I’m deeply fascinated by multilevel marketing and pyramid schemes (some people would call it “unhealthily obsessed”), I caught onto a sort of meme making its rounds on the internet, and therefore, within anti-MLM circles called the Cash App circle or Cash App wheel. It starts with a picture of a wheel that’s divided into 15 different sections, each section assigned to a different person.

And then there are the instructions.

Okay, first of all, if you have to insist that the moneymaking initiative you’re running is not a pyramid scheme, I feel like that’s a pretty good indicator that it is, in fact, a pyramid scheme.

Second of all, while this seems simple to execute, I’d argue that it’s far from easy. Have you ever tried to recruit two people to dinner plans, pre-quarantine? Not exactly easy to get people to commit, is it? And then you have to get a bunch of other randos who also need to buy in, all before the scheme collapses or gets shut down?

Now, I’m not a financial expert, nor do I work in the FBI fraud division (yet). But I can tel you that this Cash App scheme looks a lot like other pyramid schemes. Same premise, different shape.

In the late 1980s, something called the “Airplane game” started popping up around the country in places like Oklahoma, Miami, Tampa, Rochester, Los Angeles, and others. The idea was this: someone, who would be later referred to as the “pilot”, would start the game. They would then recruit two people to pay into the game and become “co-pilots”. A 1987 Associated Press article reported that the entry fee to become a co-pilot could go up to $1,000 or more, but was typically $100. Sound familiar yet?

The pilots would then recruit two players each, who would also pay the entry fee. Those four would become “flight attendants”. The flight attendants would then—you’re probably getting the hang of this now—recruit two passengers each. Here’s how the pilot would get money, per AP: “When a plane is full – say, with 14 entries – the pilot has $1,400 and the pyramid splits in half, with the co-pilots becoming pilots, flight attendants becoming co-pilots, and passengers becoming flight attendants.” The flight attendants would then have to recruit new passengers, who would pay the $100 entry fee, so “the pyramid continues splitting and growing.”

Or, if you need a visual interpretation:

the office pyramid scheme

In 1987, the Associated Press called the airplane game “the newest twist on the age-old illegal pyramid scheme.” It led to at least 17 arrests in New York and four in Los Angeles. In other words, it was not legal.

But 1987 is practically ancient history, believers might say. And plus, this is a circle, not an airplane. Totally different shape, totally not a scheme. And to you, I see your argument and raise you: one Blessings Loom. The Blessings Loom is basically the exact same scheme as the airplane scheme, and it’s existed since at least 2016. It’s also been referred to as a Christmas Wheel, Snowflake Blessing, or Infinity Loom, and guys, it’s the exact same sh*t as this Cash App circle. According to a 2016 Consumer Affairs article, “Facebook users must deposit at least $100 into a PayPal or Whatsapp account. They’re promised an $800 payout if they can recruit two other people to do the same.” I would take this time to facetiously ask you if that sounded familiar, but I’m not going to insult your intelligence, because they are exactly the f*cking same. This is a half-hearted rebrand of the same scheme.

Even back in 2016, the Mississippi Attorney General at the time called it a “pyramid scheme”, and the FTC called it a Ponzi scheme. Whatever type of scheme you prefer to classify it as, promoters can face fines or even jail time, depending on the state, and it can also lead to your Facebook or Instagram account getting shut down, since it violates the Facebook terms of service.

And remember how I said I’m not a financial expert? That’s still true, so I spoke to a Bank of America expert who warns, “The risk of falling victim to a fraudulent money scheme can increase during financially stressful times, as scammers aim to take advantage of vulnerable people and uncertain situations.” While it may sound tempting, Bank of America advises, “Never send money or give out personal information to an unknown recipient, especially in response to an unexpected request, and don’t pay upfront for a promised return.” Don’t deposit a check into your account so you can wire someone back a couple hundred dollars, don’t pay some person in your DMs $100 with the hopes of eventually getting $800—just don’t do it, ok?

The Bank of America expert emphasizes, “When it comes to personal finance—especially at an uncertain time like this—focus on tried-and-true tactics. Keep your budget updated, track your spending closely and remember: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”

So, listen. The next time a girl who bullied you in high school tries to slide in your DMs to sell you on a pyramid scheme, just say no. You won’t get your money back, you could end up in jail (jail, Ron, jail)—even though that seems kind of unlikely given the times, but whatever—and you could lose your Facebook or Instagram account. And worst of all? You’ll look like an idiot, and I can guarantee that whatever number of people you manage to recruit, double that number will be talking sh*t about you for falling for this scheme.

Images: Giphy; cashappcircle_1 / Instagram

Jonathan Cheban Got Scammed By A Burger Company That Might Be A Pyramid Scheme

If you’re a dedicated follower of the Kardashians, then you’re already familiar with their wide network of freeloaders and coattail-riders, ranging from makeup artists to “best friends.” But of course, the most prolific of these Instagram creatures is Jonathan Cheban, aka Foodgod, aka the gum stuck to the bottom of my shoe that I just can’t quite scrape off. Jonathan is known for his cringeworthy antics across the internet, but today he’s in the news for legal reasons that I’m still trying to wrap my head around.

Starting last year, Jonathan Cheban became the face of burger chain Burgerim. His partnership was announced with an unintentionally hilarious YouTube video, in which Foodgod talks about his whole life philosophy, and why Burgerim is life changing. Please watch the video, because I simply can’t do it justice with words alone.

I’ll admit, I had never heard of Burgerim before *checks clock* 45 minutes ago, but according to their website, they’re based in Calabasas, and they’re the “fastest growing burger chain in the US.” It looks like they have dozens of locations across the country, and based on the photos on the website, the food looks pretty delicious. So what’s the problem? Well, it turns out that Burgerim seems to have been run like the fast food equivalent of a multilevel marketing scheme, and a lot of people are getting ripped off… including Foodgod. I hate to say it, but he might be a victim here.

In a new report, Restaurant Business details how Burgerim implemented an aggressive franchising model, aimed at getting lots of money from people with little to no experience in the restaurant business. According to the report, “It is almost impossible to comprehend just how successful Burgerim was at selling people on the brand,” but whatever they were doing worked. The company went from having zero US locations in 2015, to having over 1,200 signed franchisees by the end of 2019. Growth like that sounds too good to be true, and—surprise!—it was.

Burgerim was charging a franchise fee of $50,000 per location, and many people were clearing out their savings or getting loans to make the payments. But the initial fee didn’t cover construction costs or the expenses of running a restaurant, and many franchisees said their costs soared into the hundreds of thousands before they even opened their locations. These costs aren’t different from any other franchise-based restaurant, but what made Burgerim unique were their money-back guarantees, and promises that franchisees would start to see profits immediately upon opening. Spoiler alert: none of that sh*t actually happened, and Restaurant Business estimates that over 100 Burgerim locations have closed since 2017. (I’m getting major Lularoe vibes rn.) Of the 20+ franchisees covered in the RB report, some have filed for bankruptcy or even found themselves homeless in the wake of their Burgerim nightmares.

In reality, this aggressive franchising model isn’t that different from all the pyramid schemes that your high school classmates are trapped in. You have a big company promising randos that they can be business owners and make tons of money, even if they know nothing about makeup/wellness/whatever industry their MLM of choice exists in, but that’s only really going to happen for like, two percent of the people. The others are going to waste a sh*t load of money, and probably be pretty broke or in debt by the end of it.

Adding to the pyramid scheme vibes, Burgerim didn’t collect any royalties from its franchisees, meaning that the only money they were collecting was the initial franchise fee. Because of this, their only hope of being successful was getting more and more people to become franchisees, even if the locations weren’t going to be viable. Basically, they were getting $50,000 per person, then peacing the f*ck out. Okay, so maybe it didn’t have the recruitment aspect of a traditional pyramid scheme, but still, sounds like a scam!!

In recent months, it appears that Burgerim’s devious tactics have caught up to them, and naturally they’ve responded by admitting wrongdoing and putting a stop to their toxic behavior. Just kidding!! Instead, they pulled the professional move of—and I love this—ghosting their franchisees for weeks. According to RB, Burgerim management “went dark” for more than six weeks beginning around Thanksgiving, with franchisees unable to hear back about any of their issues. Around Christmas, an email said the company was restructuring and offices would remained closed through the holidays, but mysteriously, they were still responding to inquiries from potential franchisees during this time.

Basically, whoever is running the show at Burgerim is obviously trash, and it seems like they just want to suck the money out of their franchisees and disappear. So now let’s circle back to Jonathan Cheban. Like I said, he became a spokesperson last year with the aforementioned YouTube video and glowing reviews on his social media. But now, he’s taking legal action against the company, because apparently they didn’t treat him so great, either.

In a legal letter obtained by Page SixCheban’s lawyer cuts ties between Foodgod and Burgerim, and demands they pay “all sums due to ,” and stop “making representations that Mr. Cheban is liable for any debt.” The letter also claims that the people behind Burgerim have most likely left the country, which seems about right. Personally, I don’t really see how anyone would assume Jonathan Cheban is responsible for this whole finasco, because that’s really not how celebrity brand endorsements work, but whatever. I’m really curious how much money they owe him, because I hate to think that his endorsement is worth that much money.

While it’s always fun to lightly roast Jonathan Cheban, at the end of the day, this isn’t really about him. There are hundreds of Burgerim franchisees who have basically lost everything to a company that doesn’t give a sh*t, and they don’t have the benefit of fame (or fame-adjacent status) to help them chase Burgerim down for money. Sure, Jonathan may have gotten a little lost in the sauce, and his image might take a hit, but he still has millions of followers who are patiently waiting to see which godforsaken humongous dessert he’s going to try next. He’ll be ok.

Images: Shutterstock; Frankie T / YouTube

This Guy Who Scammed His Friends & Family Out Of $750K Is The New Billy McFarland

It’s almost Super Bowl Sunday, and we all know what that means. For most of America, it’s time to throw on your favorite jersey, scream at your TV, and eat your body weight in wings for a few hours. For Georgia businessman Ketan Shah, however, it’s time to pull off a months-long Super Bowl scam, hustling friends and family out of $750K for Super Bowl tickets, and then skipping town. (Hmm, what’s that? A well-to-do businessman taking money from people who trust him for an experience he can’t deliver? Where on earth have we heard that before?)

According to WSBTV2 in Atlanta, Shah owns a digital printing shop and “sits on numerous community boards” in Gwinnett County. He had a “squeaky-clean” business reputation—as all victims of this alleged scam point out—and was generally a well-regarded, active member of the community. Back in November, Shah began collecting payments from these community members, promising them “one hundred level seating,” “access to the concierge lounge and a few pre-parties,” and in one case, “a chance to host an arena Super Bowl event.” Mutual friends and acquaintances started sending Shah down payments, and Shah’s own mother gave him $36,0000. When the time came to deliver on his promises, the victims claim Shah disappeared.

Now, at this point in a normal internet scam, McFarland Shah could’ve just gone dark: stopped responding to emails, blocked all calls, and done his best to make himself untraceable. But since he was literally stealing from friends and family, Shah took it a step further and just f*cking took off, leaving his poor wife, Bhavi, to deal with the consequences. (A woman cleaning up the mess a man created? Where have we heard THAT before?) According to Bhavi Shah, she had no idea her husband was selling Super Bowl tickets. As another fun surprise, Bhavi also discovered after her husband’s disappearance that he had taken out a half-million dollar loan against the business. Wait—you’re telling me this guy is both financially troubled AND a terrible husband? Color me shocked.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

Sizzle fest #fyrefestival #jarule #billymcfarland

A post shared by @ sodawaterpls on

Currently, Bhavi maintains that she has no idea where her husband is, adding that he’s been “roaming all over the town.” Ketan Shah’s family suspects he went to Vegas “as part of a midlife crisis,” but it’s unclear whether he’s there now. Gwinnett County investigators have said “they want to hear his side of the story,” adding that “it’s a very odd situation that you would take people this close to you and scam this kind of money.” I mean, maybe in 2015 it was an unusual situation, but I’d say it’s a growingly popular move nowadays, when 90% of old high school classmates reaching out to you via Facebook are trying to involve you in some kind of pyramid scheme.

Whenever Shah chooses to reappear, the police department seems to have plenty to go on to charge him. His victims have gone to numerous police departments, as well as the FBI, with even Shah’s mother reporting her $36,000 loss to the police. (She didn’t press charges—or anyway, didn’t press charges YET. I’m holding out hope.) In the meantime, his friends and family will be left wondering whether any American businessmen can still be trusted (no). And hopefully, asking themselves why they were ever willing to spend upwards of $20,000 to attend a sporting event. As we dive into this Super Bowl Sunday, let’s all be grateful for not having sons who rob us, and remember to do your research when putting down money for something that sounds too good to be true. In 2019, it probably is.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

Ya just charge my wristband (@shitheadsteve)

A post shared by Claudia Oshry (@girlwithnojob) on

Images: tenor; Giphy; girlwithnojob, sodawaterpls / Instagram