The Great Pyramid of Cheat-Ops

Post 1 of 23

Let’s create some positivity over the next few weeks leading up to the holidays… Anyone interested in a holiday gift exchange?! It doesn’t matter where you live, you are welcome to join.
I need 6 (or more) ladies of any age to participate in a secret sister gift exchange.
You only have to buy ONE gift valued at $10 or more and send it to ONE secret sister. Afterwards, you will receive 6-36 gifts in return!! It all depends how many ladies join. TIS THE SEASON!
My friend did this last year and received so many cute gifts!! It was exciting for her to receive packages in her mailbox!! This will be super fun!!!

About ten years ago, one of my then oldest and closest friends phoned to tell me that she had joined a women’s support group who were all going to make a lot of money in an investment scheme. Men were not allowed into this warm supportive sisterhood, just investment-minded, supportive women. It cost a few thousand upfront to join, but she would earn back seven times her original investment. She invited me in.

When she described how this was going to work—every member inviting two new members to ‘invest’ until the person at the top ‘earned’ the big payout, I naturally denounced it as a pyramid scheme, and advised her urgently that it was not only immoral, it was also illegal, and she should have nothing to do with it.

My friend was unmoved. She assured me that it wouldn’t be illegal because they had taken specific steps to bring it within the letter of the law. On the issue of morality, she argued that the women who gave her money would subsequently be able to recoup their money and more when they came to the top of their own pyramid. I pointed out that this could only go on for a limited time before everybody at the bottom lost out. She could not or would not absorb this.

So we began to pressure each other—she even promising to pay the original ‘investment’ for me if I would only come along to the meetings, I to insist that it was wrong, especially as she was somewhat of a public figure and that would surely be an influence on anyone who was invited into the scheme. People would feel flattered and trust her because of her fame, and could she not see it was wrong to take advantage of that?  She, meanwhile, kept begging me to please let her pay my share and just turn up at the meetings.

The conversation ended in a draw. Later I learned, from a mutual male friend who had also tried to reason with her, that men were excluded from the group because they had an uncomfortable habit of pointing out the logical flaw in, and the illegality of, pyramid schemes. The sisterhood didn’t like that.

I was reminded of this incident yesterday when a friend responded to the above post on Facebook from a friend inviting her to join a ‘sisters’ Christmas group. Send just one gift to someone, and receive from 6 to 36 gifts in return! Christmas cheer! What fun!!

Yes, dear reader, yes, I posted a comment that it was not possible for this to happen without a clear loss to all the ‘sisters’ at the bottom of the pyramid. The original poster replied that it wasn’t a pyramid scheme,  but ‘more like a chain’.  And it was, she informed me sulkily, designed to ‘spread a little cheer’ at this season.

I replied that there wouldn’t be much cheer for those who lost out, and posted a link to a description of a pyramid scheme. It was quickly deleted. I posted another comment: “Welcome to the capitalist mindset: 36 for me; none for 36 of you.”

That was deleted, too.  Meanwhile several other women happily posted that they wanted to join, and a little search informs me that this scam has been ricocheting around the net since October.

Yes, I know that for many people ten dollars plus postage isn’t that much. But for some, it might be a lot, and nowhere do I see an admission that, far from 36 or 6 or even one, you are vastly more likely to end up with no gifts at all. And especially at Christmas that could seem pretty cheerless for some.

What’s going on with people’s minds here? This is the third time I’ve run into this strange, very particular denial mindset. Back in pre-internet days, I remember getting a letter from a cousin inviting me to join a ‘women’s support group’: all I had to do was send five dollars to the name at the top of the list and add my name at the bottom (along with a mention of the personal goal I was hoping to fund from the inevitable generosity of strangers), send the list on to the requisite number of women friends, sit back and await a mailbox full of five dollar bills.

So:  the repetition of this curious tripod—the exclusion of men; the mantra that the scheme will ‘help women’; and the extraordinary ability to simply turn a blind eye to obvious facts (even when they are being loudly pointed out to you) and tell yourself that you are being sisterly and supportive while in fact you are aiming to rip other women off, gives me, as the man said, furiously to think.  What allows someone to delude herself like this? How can any woman pretend to herself that the scheme will help ‘sisters’, when the only woman she is thinking of is, clearly, herself?

I suppose most of us, at least those of a certain age, were invited into product pyramid schemes in the days before they were made illegal; I was invited at different times to sell soap, diet powder and cosmetics on such a scheme. And of course those inviting you, men and women, will appear to be thinking of your well-being—I earned money, you can, too!—though no doubt they are primarily thinking of their own good, building their little fiefdoms though ‘bringing you on board’ so you can load up your garage for the foreseeable future with two cubic metres of stuff which is never going to move till you finally toss it. Apart from the fact that here there is actually a product (other than sisterhood) changing hands, self-conscious self-interest of this kind needs no explanation: we know all about that. It’s the apparent total unconsciousness that mystifies me, the sisterhood thing that I can’t get my head around: women using terms like sisters and women’s support group, and apparently really letting themselves believe it. They blind themselves with thoughts of their own goodness in the teeth of the facts—and react with resentment, not comprehension, when anyone tries to pull off the blinders.

Which no doubt is why it’s important to exclude anyone who isn’t so prone to the blinders called sisterhood.

And the blindness doesn’t stop even with public exposure, apparently. Because of course it all blew up in my old friend’s face: in the end her fame counted against her, pretty hideously. But even as she stood refusing to give the money back because the women had signed a legal document gifting it to her, even as she read the exposés in the gutter press, she never faced the truth of her behaviour. She retired behind a self-righteous indignation that anyone could call her motives into question—she, the indefatigable charity worker, she the vegetarian, for God’s sake!—she, as always, had acted from a pure selfless regard for others, even paying to bring needy friends into the scheme in order to help them make a little money.  She was a good, caring, generous person and she therefore could never have ripped off anyone. And anyway, it was all legal.

And this morning, in spite of several warning posts and links about the illegality of the scheme from various people, my Facebook friend has signed up to the secret sister scheme to put a little fun into Christmas and reposted the above invitation. She messaged me that she was just showing support for her friend’s initiative and planned to give any gifts she received to a women’s charity.