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Scam lures women by promise of riches

By GRAHAM BRINK
Published November 30, 2003

TAMPA - The pitch comes cloaked in inspiring New Age lingo.

Women helping women to create a "powerful moving force." A philanthropic mission that "enriches" lives.

"This journey has significantly benefited many women who have come before you," the spiel promises.

One problem: It's an illegal pyramid scheme. And it's operating in the Tampa Bay area.

The Women's Wisdom Circle promises "true sisterhood" and a "strong backbone of energy," according to documents obtained by the St. Petersburg Times. Two women from Pinellas County contacted the newspaper complaining about the group.

The Pinellas/Pasco and Hillsborough state attorney's offices have not fielded any complaints about the Women's Wisdom Circle. Experts say women's gifting circles have cropped up in Palm Beach County and some other South Florida counties.

Since the circles first appeared in the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s, more than 25 states have issued warnings about spinoffs with names like A Women's Project and the Women's Empowerment Network. Wisconsin officials found the illegal circles operating in almost every county. Law enforcement authorities in New York and Hawaii investigated which women participated and handed out more than $100,000 worth of penalties.

The promises in the letter circulating in Pinellas County are similar to the ones made in those other states.

"These circles have spread like a highly contagious virus," said Robert FitzPatrick, president of Pyramid Scheme Alert. "They usually leave a trail of destruction and broken dreams."

The pitch often comes from relatives, friends or business associates. They have joined a new women-only group designed to enhance lives, they say. Each member contributes $5,000 to a woman in need, they say, and in a matter of days or maybe a week or two you'll get eight times that amount in return.

Each group usually contains 15 women. Despite the references to circles, the structure is classic pyramid. The woman at the top has the most senority. Two women are beneath her, then four beneath them and eight at the bottom.

The woman at the top collects her $40,000 when the bottom level fills up. She then leaves and the group splits into two, and all the other members move up one level. Both groups must then find eight new members for the bottom level.

The math is not on the side of anyone who participates, experts say. If each person must recruit eight people, then after just eight full recruitment cycles, more than 1.5-million people would be involved, FitzPatrick said. A few more cycles and the number exceeds the world's entire population. At least 90 percent of participants will lose everything they put in, he said.

"There is always a level of deception in all these schemes," said FitzPatrick, co-author of False Profits, an analysis of multilevel marketing businesses and pyramid schemes. "And then a type of delusion or mania takes over."

In Dallas, a city hit by gifting circles in 2000, groups of professional women would meet at swanky homes, according to authorities and media reports. The meetings, which included fancy hors d'oeuvres and cake, often began with a pep rally that extolled the benefits of the program and how more women were needed to keep the circle from breaking.

The leaders also emphasized that because the payments were gifts, it was all legal. Sometimes they even added that it was tax free.

After the pep talk, a woman would be "birthdayed," the lingo used to describe what happens when you make it to the top of the pyramid. Some groups describe it as the "dessert stage." The woman was handed eight gift-wrapped packages. Each contained $5,000 in cash.

Dallas residents Tinka Hairgrove and Bobbie Brown blew the whistle once they figured out the circle they joined would victimize other women.

They had plunked down $2,500 each and went out and recruited friends and family. Two weeks later, enough women had signed up for Hairgrove and Brown to be "birthdayed." But before that meeting, they saw reports in the media about the illegal schemes. They demanded their money back, to no avail. They then went to the police and the district attorney's office.

"We had one lady who was going to sell her jewelry and another lady who was going to get the cash from her credit card," Hairgrove told the Dallas Morning News in 2000. "That's how wild things were."

FitzPatrick said the "up with women" theme is a powerful motivator. The schemes foster a sense of entitlement by emphasizing the idea that women have been second-class citizens, long discriminated against, especially in the financial arena, he said.

They also promote the safety of "investing in women," FitzPatrick said. Men commit corporate frauds and other financial crimes, according to the rhetoric, but women don't hurt other women.

Add to that a dose of naivete or willful ignorance and you have a recipe for an effective scam, he said.

"It's like the grass-roots version of insider trading," he said. "People don't like to lose themselves, but they don't mind if you lose."

Lewis B. Freeman, a forensic accountant in Miami, said the number of these schemes increases during sluggish economic times.

"It's all about greed," said Freeman, who has investigated several pyramid schemes. "People see what they think is a winning lottery ticket, and they throw away their common sense. We are all dreamers."

The story sounds familiar to Sam Thompson, spokeswoman for the Attorney General's Office in New Mexico.

In 2000, Thompson's office began fielding complaints from women who felt ripped off by gifting circles, including one called Dinner Party. Officials began investigating and found a "cottage industry" of circles around the state, Thompson said.

"It wasn't just one big pyramid," she said. "It was many little ones. That made it much more difficult to target."

The participants weren't just the poor or uneducated, Thompson said. College-educated businesswoman, teachers and housewives all got wrapped up in the schemes, she said. Some maxed out their credit cards or remortgaged a home to raise the money.

The Attorney General's Office prosecuted about a dozen women, and local district attorneys' offices in New Mexico went after at least 25 more, Thompson said. The publicity from those prosecutions stamped out most of the circles, she said.

"When we began breaking up the circles, women called screaming some really ugly things at me about being just days from getting paid," Thompson said. "They still didn't see that it's not a gift if you expect something in return."

There are two likely outcomes for anyone who joins one of these circles, Thompson said.

"One is being held criminally responsible. The other is losing money. Neither makes for a good New Year."

- Graham Brink can be reached at 813 226-3365 or brink@sptimes.com

[Last modified November 30, 2003, 01:16:37]


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