A federal court has pulled the blocks out from under Fortune Hi-Tech Marketing, which prosecutors say has defrauded more than 100,000 consumers in the U.S. and Canada.
“This is the beginning of the end for one of the most prolific pyramid schemes operating in North America,” Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway said at a news conference in Lexington, Ky. “This is a classic pyramid scheme in every sense of the word. The vast majority of people, more than 90 percent, who bought in to FHTM lost their money.”
According to the complaint filed by the FTC and the state attorneys general of Illinois, Kentucky and North Carolina, the defendants falsely claimed consumers would earn significant income for selling the products and services of companies such as Dish Network, Frontpoint Home Security, and various cell phone providers, and for selling FHTM’s line of health and beauty products.
Despite FHTM’s claims, nearly all consumers who signed up with the scheme lost more money than they ever made. To the extent that consumers could make any income, however, it was mainly for recruiting other consumers, and FHTM’s compensation plan ensured that most consumers made little or no money, the complaint alleged.
A rigged game
“Pyramid schemes are more like icebergs,” said C. Steven Baker, Director of the FTC’s Midwest Region. “At any point most people must and will be underwater financially. These defendants were promising people that if they worked hard they could make lots of money. But it was a rigged game, and the vast majority of people lost money.”
Prosecutors say the scheme affected more than 100,000 consumers throughout the United States, including Puerto Rico, and Canada. In some areas, including Chicago, the scheme targeted Spanish-speaking consumers.
As alleged in the complaint, FHTM promoted itself as a way for average people to achieve financial independence. Some FHTM representatives claimed they earned more than 10 times as much as their previous earnings in their second and subsequent years with FHTM.
One person claimed that another representative earned more than $50,000 in his sixth month and millions of dollars in subsequent years. Another person promoted a recruitment meeting on her Twitter account, stating, “Bring ur friends & learn how 2 make $120K aYR.”
At its 2012 national convention in Dallas, FHTM called its top 30 earners to the stage to present them with a mock-up of a $64 million check, which several of them shared as a photo on social networking websites.
To participate in the scheme, consumers paid annual fees ranging from $100 to $300. To qualify for sales commissions and recruiting bonuses, they had to pay an extra $130 to $400 per month and agree to a continuity plan that billed them monthly for products unless they canceled the plan.
Those who signed up more consumers and maintained certain sales levels could earn promotions and greater compensation, but contrary to FHTM’s claims, the complaint alleged, its compensation plan ensured that, at any given time, most participants would spend more money than they would earn.
In addition to charging the defendants with operating an illegal pyramid scheme and making false earnings claims, the FTC charged them with furnishing consumers with false and misleading materials for recruiting more participants. The attorneys general offices of Illinois, Kentucky and North Carolina joined the FTC complaint, as well as alleging violations of their state laws.
The defendants are Paul C. Orberson, Thomas A. Mills, Fortune Hi-Tech Marketing Inc., FHTM Inc., Alan Clark Holdings LLC, FHTM Canada Inc., and Fortune Network Marketing (UK) Limited.