Friday, July 29, 2016

SEC Halts Traffic Monsoon Ponzi Scheme, Reasserts that "Autosurf Ponzis" are illegal

The internet buzz on July 28th 2016 was the press release that SEC has halted the $207 Million Ponzi scheme called Traffic Monsoon.

Traffic Monsoon was operated by Charles Scoville, as a combination "internet traffic exchange and pay-per-click program" that solicited money from all over the world. It accepted money from at least 162000 investors primarily in US, India, and Russia by claiming to be a "highly successful advertising company", when in reality, more than 99% of the revenue was paid into the system by new investors, making it a classic Ponzi scheme.  Traffic Monsoon LLC is a Utah company. Scoville is believed to be in Dubai. SEC's motion to have an temporary freeze and receiver to take over the company has been granted.

Traffic Monsoon's primary product (which accounted for 99.6% of all revenue) is the "Adpack". At $50 each, purchaser is supposed to get 20 clicks on the banner (either they provide, or they can use one provided by Traffic Monsoon) and 1000 visitors from the traffic exchange, as well as "share in Traffic Monsoon's profit". In reality, TM was never able to fulfill the visitor promise. By its own counter, it can only provide about 1/10th of the visitors. In reality, TM operated as a $50 in, $55 out HYIP.

Those that track scams, such as the MLMSkeptic, would notice that this is structurally IDENTICAL to 12DailyPro (2005-2006) or Ad Surf Daily (2006-2008), both were also prosecuted as autosurf ponzi schemes.

What's more interesting is Charles Scoville himself has been observed operating several predecessors to Traffic Monsoon. There's TVIBUX, and there's AdHitsProfits, both are slight variations on the same ideas. Neither, however, made it big to hundreds of millions of dollars.

But first, let's explain what an autosurf is, and what an investment autosurf.

What is an autosurf? 

Autosurf is a type of Internet website traffic exchagne that automatically rotate advertised websites in the web browser.  Imagine leaving a browser window open to constantly display banners from all the other websites, which changes periodically. Each "view" earns you a "credit" which allows your site's banner some display time in other people's browser window.

Autosurf can operate as a "ponzi scheme" even if no money changes hands, if overall credits earned is in excess of total pageviews delivered, thus ensuring that there will always be credits left over.

Autosurf that involve money are known as Investment autosurfs.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

OPINION: With HLF consenting to reforms, and Burks of ZeekRewards Guilty, justice prevailed, but work is never done

July 2016 has been a busy month.

On July 15, 2016, news was released that Herbalife has reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission where HLF agreed to a LONG list of reforms and pay a $200 million fine / reimbursement to the victims.

Then on July 22, 2016 Federal Court in North Carolina passed down the verdict... a Federal jury has convicted Paul Burks of ZeekRewards of all four counts of fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud.

MLMSkeptic has long criticized both schemes, both here on the blog, and on

MLMSkeptic had analyzed the various comments, retorts, criticisms, and cheers of Ackman's epic short of Herbalife at end of 2012 and the subsequent PR war, and pointed out problems with such arguments.  Most of the critics of Ackman then believed that HLF was "too big to fail", or perhaps "not egregious enough to die, maybe fined".

So it is with much amusement and facepalming when "journalists" loudly proclaimed "FTC says Herbalife not a pyramid", when FTC said no such thing.

How did CNNMoney got it so wrong?
FTC never said HLF is not a pyramid scheme... 
You are welcome to search the actual FTC complaint and stipulation agreed to by HLF. "Pyramid scheme" was nowhere in the documents. Furthermore, when questioned by the press at the news conference, FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez was asked at least FOUR SEPARATE TIMES whether HLF is a pyramid scheme, and Ramirez repeatedly dodged the question (probably as a part of the settlement).
Q: I know that you’re not going to put any labels on this, but it seems to me if we look at the BurnLounge case, that while this complaint does not use the words “pyramid scheme”, would you agree that a prima facie case of a pyramid scheme is alleged with the allegations within the complaint?
A:  Again, I will leave it up to you to draw that conclusion. Our focus in this complaint was in addressing the core issues
When asked outright about HLF's own announcement... That FTC have determined HLF to be NOT a pyramid scheme...
Q: Did you review the language in their (Herbalife’s) press-release that sort of affirmatively said that they were not declared to be a pyramid scheme? Because they’re sort of having that as an outright headline.
A: I do not agree with that statement. The word “pyramid” does not appear in our complaint that is true, but um again the core facts that we’ve alleged, that we consider to be problematic with their compensation structure, are set forth in detail in our complaint. And again, I will leave it to readers to draw their own conclusions. But that they were determined to not be a pyramid… that would be inaccurate.
And indeed, checking the HLF website no longer shows any sort of language that claimed "FTC determined HLF not pyramid scheme"...

So you know which way the CNNMoney article was written... They were written from HLF's press release, not the FTC press release. It is... biased.  Shame, CNN. Shame on you for lazy reporting.

I am not listing all the changes that FTC managed to squeeze out of HLF. You can read the documents linked above yourself. It is a LONG list of reforms, and it will likely become a new standard much as Amway's settlement with FTC created the modern MLM back in 1979.  And that pretty much tells you the fact: HLF was a scam that required reforms so it is no longer operating as a scam. Any one who argues otherwise is simply denying reality.

I may do my own analysis later on these changes, but HLF is no longer the same company. They believe they can continue to thrive (or else they would not agreed to these changes), but we shall see.

Then we come to Zeek Rewards, and Paul Burks.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

How to spot shady opportunities V2.0: a 10 item checklist

NOTE: This was a rewritten version of the guide back in 2014.

World is full of Shady Opportunities that want you to put in money with promises of payback. Here are ten signs of shady schemes. Obviously a scheme probably would not have all ten, but the more signs you spot, the more likely it will be a scam.
  1. Clickbait-y Slogan
  2. Misinterpreted results
  3. Conflict of interest(s)
  4. Correlation vs. Causation
  5. Weasel words
  6. Bad Samples
  7. (Lack of) Control Group
  8. Unverifiable testimonial and Improper disclosure
  9. Cherrypicked and unreplicable results
  10. Paid or fake media coverage and reviews

Clickbait-y Slogan

EVERYBODY hates clickbaits... They are headlines written with intentional hyperbole and tease to get you to tease. Shady opportunities are the same. Does the scheme make incredulous claims such as "On our team everyone makes money"? Or they somehow "Pay One time $289 and get a minimum of $1040 back Guaranteed!" perhaps?  Before you say "nobody is stupid enough to make this sort of stupid claims"... think again:

Screen cap of Google Search results, yes, someone promised and guaranteed that
$289 will magically grow to $1040 and more. It's obviously clickbait.
As Carl Sagan said before, "extraordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence".  If they made such extraordinary claim, then they should supply the extraordinary evidence to support their claim. And since there are so many ILLEGAL ways of making money... Making money in itself is no proof. 

It doesn't matter if the claims are repeated by the people you trust. They could have been duped and/or brainwashed. If they didn't ask for extraordinary evidence and is convinced of such, then you should not trust their judgement, esp. when they are in no position to evaluate such. 

Misinterpreted Results

We are all affected by confirmation bias to one extent or another. If we hear some evidence, we are going to interpret them based on your experiences, while someone else may see the same data and interpret them very separately. Here's another example:

Monty comic / Is it going to be McCain or Obama?  (old joke on confirmation bias)
The sales pitch is designed to say "just enough" so you think it applies to you, and NOT tell you that parts that "this may not apply to you"... so you can misinterpret the results to be relevant.

Your mindset affects how you interpret the results, and willful blindness, Dunning-Kruger effect, and self-serving bias will lead you down the wrong path. 

Conflict(s) of interest

Most MLM companies in the "lotions and potions business" (nutritional supplements and cosmetics) employ scientists to carry out and publish research... But remember, those scientists may have conflict of interest, and if they did not disclose so, that is a huge ethical violation, as research can be misrepresented for personal or financial gain.

The worst example of which is (former doctor) Darryl M. See, who previously was a researcher at UC Irvine. He wrote a paper touting a Mannatech (MLM) product that he claimed has proven results in his study, and got it published in pretty famous American medical journal on nutrition. However, he never disclosed that 1) he had resigned from UC Irvine months before publication to pursue a career endorsing Mannatech (and was paid thousand per day for speaking gigs), 2) his wife had been a Mannatech rep for years, and 3) he made dozens of audio tapes sold at Mannatech conventions and seminars touting Mannatech products  4) His father was a personal friend of the journal's publisher.

When the news broke, UC Irvine had NO RECORD of any such study had occurred, but Mannatech's president already announced such to its legion of reps. In the end, Mannatech sued See, who jumped to a different company, before eventually forced to give up his medical license due to multiple medical ethics violations.

If someone suggests MLM as a way to solve your financial needs, you need to consider... Are they really doing it because they think it's the right thing for you to make some money... or is it because THEY, by recruiting you, will make some money off of you joining?

Stay skeptical of any and all claims, esp. when it is done with the ultimate aim to recruit you. 

Correlation vs. Causation

When two things happen together, it does NOT mean one caused the other, despite how much you feel one *must* have caused the other.

XKCD... Did cell phone cause cancer... or did cancer cause cell phones? 
Don't get the joke? Following is a 100% true graph...

Is there relation between Autism and Organic Food? They correlate to the third decimal point!?!?!
Yep, that's right, Organic food sales correlate with autism over 10 year period. Real data. But of course there's no causation... Yet that's the point: just because two things happen together doesn't mean one caused the other. It likely to be a mere coincidence.

Yet many MLMers want you to believe that their nutritional supplement made them healthier, their magic rub took away their pain, their magic juice / tea / coffee took away their diabetes, and so on, because those effects "only" appeared when they started using those stuff.

For those of you who watch Stephen Colbert, this is related to the difference between the truth... and truthiness. Or as Colbert himself puts it:
Truthiness is 'What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.' It's not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There's not only an emotional quality, but there's a selfish quality.
If you BELIEVE it's causation, you'll never accept it's merely correlation. If you believe your nutritional supplements made you feel better, or that special widget increased your car's mileage by 15%, you'll never believe accept that the supplement's merely placebo effect, and the widget is relying on your lighter foot as you FEEL less need to speed and get better mileage. You believe truthiness (There is an effect and I caused it!) instead of the truth (It's just correlation and coincidence).

Correlation is NOT causation (until proven otherwise). 

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

MLM, Religion, and Feminism: synergy, or triple threat?

I was reading this article on Vox about multilevel marketing by Kate Shellnutt when I had an epiphany: MLM's rise to prominence matches rise of feminism to mainstream, and it is connected to religion.

Consider this... What do Christianity and Islam say about women working? Their view is that women should stay home and mind the house.
All three texts—the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Qur’an—invariably stipulate women’s religious duty of submission to men. In this view, women are deemed subordinate to men, with their legitimate roles invariably exhausted inside the home.  (huffingtonpost 11/07/2014)
Consider this... Did you know that Mormons are into generosity and sharing? Did you know that Utah, home of the Mormons, is home to many of the largest MLM companies in the world? NuSkin, doTerra, USANA, and dozens / hundreds of smaller companies...In fact, five of the top 50 MLMs in the world are based in Utah.

This is no accident. According to Dr. Jon M. Taylor, a Mormon, and a former MLM participant, now MLM investigator, MLM is designed to emulate / co-opt the Mormon style of sharing / proselytizing.

When you combine all these points, the conclusion is simple: MLM is designed to

1) appeal to women who wish to earn income (and thus be less subservient to men)

2) allow women to stay home and do their more traditional homemaker roles (so men can't object to it too much, as it's "only part time")

3) appeal to women who wishes to socialize and share (which is why there's gajillion "party plan" MLMs selling everything from plastic containers to sex toys)

4) appeal to Mormon's style of "sharing" their faith and co-opt it

5) appeal to people of faith, who are more inclined to believe in something before effects can be demonstrated

Indeed, MLMs nowadays seem to be specifically designed for suburban moms who want a 2nd income, and they have faith (backed by desire, and religion) to dump all their effort, despite losses, into doing something they believe they love.

And they are out proselytising the virtues of MLM... based on these exact points.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

How to be a cranky troll: Guide to IGNORE all useful feedback

(Author's note: This is written as a contrarian piece... The advice is BAD for you, and you are meant to do exactly opposite of all this. Got that? Okay, enjoy.)

Do you have absolute belief in yourself, that you can do no wrong, therefore, everybody else must be wrong? Are you surrounded by people who intend to change your mind even though you know YOU are right and they are wrong, despite all evidence pointing to the contrary?

Here are six tips to help you silence the world and live only within your head where you are always right:

1. Reinterpret specific advice to be personal attack on you, your business, your "family"

Any and all advice that you don't like is obviously an attack on you, your "family", your business, and your way of life, no matter where it came from, including your dear mama. They obviously... "don't understand" about how you work, how you think, how you live and therefore they have no business giving you advice!  In fact, anything other than "great job" is an attack on your beliefs!

2. Ignore advice until they are no longer relevant, then rant about how the advice is useless

Ignore all advice until it becomes "overtaken by events"... i.e. completely useless, then claim the advice is useless. Go ahead and insult the advice giver as useless and worthless, never mind you never took the advice any way. That's merely some inconvenient truth to be swept under the carpet.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Commentary: How "Ultimate Guide to Network Marketing" illustrates what's wrong with Network Marketing

I often browse used bookstores, and one day I came across "Ultimate Guide to Network Marketing" edited by Dr. Paul Rubino. As the MLM Skeptic, I read it with a skeptical mind...  Overall, I am rather... disappointed. While several of the authors out of 37 did dispense practical advice, such as how to utilize modern tech like autoresponder and such, while others laid out do's and don'ts on what to say in a sales speech, ZERO discussed what's legal and what's not legal.

"Pyramid scheme" was NEVER discussed, other than as an resistance to be overcome, as doubt in a prospect that must be quashed, and so on.

Product-based pyramid scheme was never mentioned.

In fact, the entire book is devoid of definitions other than odd backronyms like WOO = window of opportunity. There is no glossary, just an index.

Consider the implication: how would the network marketing noob know what's legal and what's not if it was NOT discussed in a so-called "Ultimate Guide to Network Marketing"? How "ultimate" can this guide be if legal stuff was not discussed at all?

Furthermore, many of the chapters were about belief / faith. Belief in oneself, belief in product, belief in company, belief in team...  Belief involves TRUST. What happened to due diligence? Common sense? What makes the company, product, or team members WORTHY of trust?

This is basically a collection of "business porn"... written by network marketing "leaders" who claimed success through effort even though they can't prove that their success was a result of their effort. Anything they wrote are results of survivorship bias and self-serving bias, but people starting in network marketing believe these to be words of wisdom, and indeed, many of the 37 articles advocate "just ape what I do" or "create system that can be easily aped"

In fact, one article is about how to CREATE business porn... awards, recognitions, newsletters, mailing lists, podcasts, Youtube videos, and so on, as marketing vehicles.

Would you really consider "monkey see, monkey do" to be wisdom?  The entire book is thin on actual practical advice. Most are motivational talk and how to customize such for your particular market (i.e. your prospects). Again, it's business porn, and it does NOT help.

Just as porn is not sex but sexual fiction designed to titillate, business porn is NOT business advice, but sales pitch designed to motivate.  Porn is fine in moderate doses, but porn addiction is serious problem. Similarly, business porn is fine in moderate doses, but business porn addiction will simply depress you as you constantly choose to compare yourself to leaders, trying to ape them, without understanding WHAT made them successful (often, it's just luck) and what price did they pay (which is NOT depicted).

The book basically is all about trust, and duplication, with a few bits of sales techniques and marketing vehicles covered, but has ZERO advice on what to look for, how to spot good from bad, and how to spot legal from illegal.

The implication is very troubling: if this is the sort of book written by top network marketing professionals, network marketing is about faith and recruiting, not about sales and earning trust.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Cognitive Bias: Choice Supportive Bias (aka Post-hoc Rationalization)

Previously we have often talked about cognitive dissoance, which is basically when a person is faced with two sets of "truths", and they conflict, therefore one set of which must be false.

For example, let's say the person has joined a suspect scheme, and is withdrawing money bi-weekly, but not yet achieved breakeven. Then he's exposed to a source that explained that the scheme is a scam with trustworthy sources.

So, how does one resolve this conflict between two sets of facts... a) the scheme works, I am getting paid  and b) the scheme is a scam ?

One way the conflict can be resolved is through "choice supportive bias", also known as post-hoc rationalization. As the person is already in the scheme, the person is likely to choose to continue in the scheme and therefore decide that the trustworthy sources (that explain the scheme is a scam) are NOT acceptable.

Basically, the person wants the answer to be "scheme is fine" and thus chose that outcome, and came up with reasons to discount the trustworthy sources post-hoc (after the fact). Normal logic is  check all the sources, then arrive at the conclusion. This is the reverse... The person know the conclusion s/he wants, then come up with the reasons later.   It's motivated thinking.

As you can probably guess, motivated thinking means more often than not the person will reach the WRONG conclusion, since the conclusion was NOT deduced from logic, but emotion.

Let's look at some examples...