I have complied this factsheet in an attempt to help you understand what your friend or relative is going through and how you can best help them out of this situation. I have gleaned this information from reading books on the subject and background research on MLMs and cults.
A word of warning. This is a very difficult subject and people can be emotionally and financially tied up in these schemes and can be very vulnerable. If you attempt to help them and you feel you may be making it worse, back off. They will be vulnerable and you don’t want to make things worse. Just remember, you are on their side and want to help them.
Notes on this article
I will refer to the person in the MLM from now on as ‘your friend’ to avoid repeatedly having to say ‘friend/relative/colleague/person you care about.’
Some other sources of help.
Ethan Vanderbuilt has made this useful YouTube video of advice for people who have a friend or loved one in an MLM.
This article- “Emergency Handbook, what to do when a friend loves woo” is very enlightening. It covers MLMs as well as pseudoscientific products. It is from the Skeptoid website.
Your overall aims and objectives
You should not be aiming at ‘getting them out of the MLM’. Instead, you should be trying to empower them to understand their situation and to allow them to autonomously decide for themselves that they want to leave. They should not be emotionally blackmailed or forced to leave. You should be trying to give them back their lost powers of critical thinking.
Accept that this may take time and cannot be achieved with one quick meeting and a handover of facts.
Do not go in with the attitude that you know best and they are stupid. You could make them dig their heels in further and upset your relationship. Your friend has been subjected to some very clever techniques and we need to tread very carefully.
- Take the time to educate yourself about what MLMs are and how they operate.
You need to understand what you are up against and to understand their responses when you talk to them.
Here is a good simple video called ‘How to spot a pyramid scheme.’ It describes how MLMs work.
Here is a video showing people’s experiences in Herbalife. Their experiences are relevant to all MLMs.
Some blog posts I have written explain the realities of MLM- Expectation versus reality. An analysis of the payment structure in one of the schemes here. A page on the things people in MLMs say and the truth behind them. This last one will be particularly useful to read before having a discussion about MLMs. Visit Bot watch on Facebook for links/ articles/ facts.
Have a look at Timeless Vie on Facebook and their blog and read about the bullying that goes on and some of the uncomfortable facts about MLMs. Here you will read about how vulnerable people are targeted, bullied and lied to. You will learn about some of the people behind the companies.
Visit Lazyman and Money for well researched articles on specific MLMs and more general themes that will give you some facts.
For a more detailed analysis of the workings of MLMs you could visit MLM expert David Brear’s website MLM The American Dream Made Nightmare.
Also, you might want to join in conversations or ask questions of people who can help you with answers. Send a message to Bot Watch or Timeless Vie who can advise or send you links that will help. Or join in the discussion on Mumsnet and jump right in. Go to the Money section there and select the discussion starting with the words ‘MLM chat’.
- Look after yourself
It can be very distressing having discussions with people about their MLM. They will feel very loyal to their company and could get very defensive towards you. You will need to assess how much effort you are willing to put in. If you have been contacted by an old school friend and asked to join their team, just say ‘no thanks’ and then leave a link for them that explains your position. ‘People who care about you are worried‘ is a good one that lays out some facts explaining why MLMs are a bad idea. Whether you take it any further is up to you.
If you are trying to help a close family member or partner, you will need to be a lot more involved and seek support. You will need to involve other family members and good friends. Make sure they realise what the person is involved in. You will need a united front and you will need to help each other. It will be very stressful for you if you are so closely involved and you feel you are on your own. It may take time and some people may not see MLM as a real problem. It will be worth the effort though if you can all work together.
- Be aware that your friend is not who they used to be.
Your friend will have been changed by subtle but clever techniques from the MLM. You may notice personality changes and strange behaviours that are out of character for them. This is what has prompted observers to call them ‘bots’. This refers to their robotic behaviours and scripted-style responses. They may start posting inspirational memes, being overly happy and optimistic, posting pictures on social media constantly saying how amazing their life is. They may be lying about things that you know just aren’t true. They are literally trying to change who they are and emulate the people higher up than them in the pyramid. They will have been subjected to ‘mindset training’ that tells them how to think and act.
Elements of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) are used to change the way a person perceives the world and interacts within it. They are trained to see the outside world as hostile and desperate, their MLM as amazing and a perfect opportunity. They think their MLM is benevolent and the products desirable. They become unable to perceive things from multiple points of view and can only see things as presented by their MLM.
They sometimes become addicted to working on their ‘business’ and gain warm feelings and reinforcement from any sign of success. See this person’s experiences on Timeless Vie.
To borrow Steve Hassan’s concept from his book ‘Combating Mind Control,’ the person changes from Mary-Mary to Bot-Mary. Mary has been partially taken over by Bot (Robotic) personality but it is still attached to the original Mary. She is still in there somewhere.
- Do not criticise the company.
Your friend will take any criticism personally. They will see it as an attack on them and their dreams. They have had it drummed into them that their hopes and dreams can be achieved by this amazing company. People who stand in their way are just haters and do not understand how wonderful this opportunity is. By disagreeing with it you are criticising their choice and jeopardising their dreams. They genuinely won’t understand why you are trying to destroy their dreams.
The biggest danger of criticising the MLM is that you will be considered a threat to their success and could bring them failure. There are many, many instances of friends and family being cut off because of that. There have been divorces, lost friendships and family splits. This is a real threat, even if you had a very good relationship before.
- Don’t buy the products and don’t join their team.
If you do, you will be giving your friend false hope and making them feel their MLM is legitimate. It might make them continue in it for longer. You may feel guilty and made to feel you are not being supportive but you are helping them really.
If you find yourself at a ‘party’ where products and the ‘opportunity’ are being sold, do not feel pressured to buy anything. Do not feel you need to give an excuse because they will just find a reason around that. Say something like ‘No thanks, I won’t be buying anything’ or ‘no thanks, it’s not for me’. Don’t feel guilty for being impolite, that is just a social norm that is being exploited by the methods used in MLMs. The system is banking on you making a pity purchase. Do not support this system.
- The stages people go through on their MLM journey
Understanding what phase they are in will determine what your approach will be. Also woven into this will be how close you are to them, so you will have to tailor your approach to your circumstances. This following bit is based purely on my observations, readings and speaking to people who have left MLMs.
- Interested about the opportunity. Might ask for ideas/ advice at this stage. Tell them everything. Maybe show them something like Timeless Vie or the reality vs expectation information.
- Invested in joining up and assigned an upline. First party booked. At this point they will be very excited and have spent money on the scheme. They are full of hope but will not have been changed too much. You might still have a chance here, but tread carefully and don’t criticise MLMs just in case they are deeper than you think and they cut you off. You could try some gentle questioning (see later point) here and react accordingly.
- They will have invested a lot more time and money and not making much back. They probably will be being pressured by their upline to work harder and will be starting to blame themselves for their perceived failure. At this point they will be very vulnerable. They will be tired, stressed and financially stretched. Concern and support are the best things you can offer at this point. Be there for them and show you care for them. Do not be tempted to buy anything.
- By now it will be painfully obvious to your friend that they are not going to make it in this MLM. They could well find that a piece of information at this time could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Tailor the piece of information you share with them to their own personal ethics or knowledge. Essentially here you are finding their ‘hot button’, the trigger that will get to them. Just like how they were targeted when they joined the company. There is plenty of information out there to chose from- facts about the top bosses, conduct of experts, targeting of vulnerable people, using sick children, illnesses and charities to sell products.
Presenting information to your friend.
Moments of doubt.
Your friend may express doubts about what they are doing. Don’t jump on this this and tell them you are glad they have found the truth and then proceed to tell them how dreadful you know the whole scam to be. It is very common for people to have moments of doubt but then return to what they were doing. You will then be seen as a threat and will be avoided. Their defences will be up when they are around you. See it as a kind of bad relationship and they told you they have split up. Then they get back together again. Your relationship with your friend would be seriously damaged.
Instead, be supportive and gently questioning. Ask them why they are having a wobble. Help them explore their feelings. Help them navigate around the issues but don’t tell them what to do or think. If they ask for your opinion, say you are not sure and look for the answers together.
Having discussions with your friend.
Connecting with the non-bot part of your friend.
Your friend may be thinking and acting as Bot-Mary as discussed previously and your aim is to connect with the old Mary-Mary. Try to steer conversation to interests you used to share. Invite them to a film you know they would have liked before. Talk about shared memories. Ask them about something you once did together. Don’t let the old ‘Mary’ disappear and be taken over by ‘Bot’ where everything is all about the MLM. You could use this technique to steer conversation away from recruitment attempts or sales pitches. Show your friend that you still value them and want to connect with them.
Helping your friend see things from multiple perspectives.
This can be difficult but if it can be achieved, can be quite effective. They have been trained to see things from just one perspective- that of the MLM. They have lost the ability to see things critically anymore. If you can get them to see their situation from a different perspective, they may be able to start making connections and think their way out of their situation. You could ask them how their old selves might have perceived something. E.g.
Time- “Wow, Mary! What would your old self have said if she knew you would be up at 3am posting comments on social media trying to sell a face cream?”
Person- “How is your partner coping with all this working that you are doing?” Don’t get judgemental, just help your friend explore how their actions might be impacting on others. Has anyone said anything to them about how their MLM activity is negatively impacting on them. “Have you had much negativity?” Maybe explore what negative comments they have had and where these might have stemmed from. Try to leave your friend with something to think about.
Non threatening but relevant topics.
Your friend may have been programmed to shut down and stop listening when their MLM is being criticised. You may be able to discuss other relevant issues though that they do not see as threatening to their ideals. Typically people will be able to see flaws in other MLMs. They feel able to criticise and listen to criticism of other MLMs because theirs is not being targeted. You could try to present information about other MLMs and get their take on it. Show them an income disclosure for another MLM and see what their thoughts are on it. They might agree that the MLM in question does indeed have a dreadful pay structure. They may well be left wondering what their own income disclosure looks like. Plant that seed. Pursue it as far as you feel able. It doesn’t have to be an income disclosure, it could be an issue you have seen on Bot Watch or Timeless Vie.
I apologise for not being able to give you a simple, step-by-step account of how to help someone in an MLM. Instead, all I have been able to do is give you some understanding and principles to work with. I hope that some of these tactics can be used to help your friend. Remember, your aim is to support your friend and gently try to guide them towards being able to make decisions for themselves.
I wish you luck in supporting your friend.
If you have lost someone to an MLM and you are concerned about them and have been unable to help them, would you consider talking to a film maker who is researching a documentary on this issue? She needs people to come forward and tell their story so that the wider public can be shown the reality of these schemes and the very real harm that they do to relationships, finances and the wider harms. If you would like to contact her, her name is Priya Biring and she can be contacted at email@example.com. Alternatively, contact me on Bot Watch on Facebook if you want to discuss any issues. You will be treated in confidence and your concerns taken seriously.
Please feel free to comment below with any insights you have on how to talk to people in these situations. What have your experiences been? Have you come out of an MLM? What was it that made you see the truth? There are so many people out there looking for ways to help their loved ones, any insights would be useful, thank you.