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The Texas-based MLM, Stream Energy, Sued for Operating as a Pyramid Scheme

August 2009

The Texas-based MLM, Stream Energy, which sells gas and electric utilitiy services in Texas and in Georgia, has been sued for operating a pyramid scheme. The civil suit, which is seeking class ation status, claims that Stream misrepresents income potential, misleads consumers to invest as salespeople, is causing the great majority of "sales people" to lose money and is destined to collapse.

The suit notes that the ratio of Stream customers to salespeople is now only two to one. Therefore the income potential could only come from recruiting other sales people in an endless chain fashion. In such a plan, only a very small number can be successful and all others are doomed to failure. Stream's pay plan is a typical MLM that pays earlier investors with funds invested by new ones in an "endless chain" plan.

The lawsuit will be eerily familiar to consumers who have watched the MLM industry. Stream is a type of MLM similar to Pre-Paid Legal, the now defunct Excel Communications, the travel scheme, My TravelBiz.com that was prosecuted as a pyramid scheme in California, and the telephone scheme, ACN which has also been prosecuted in Canada and Australia, but was able to continue based on rulings by judges. These schemes offer payments based on the number of new sales people recruited and each salesperson must also have a small number of retail customers to be qualified for commissions.

By using the endless chain pay plan the scheme can drive a large number of sales, though almost no sales people actually earn a profit and virtually none actually earn a profit for "direct selling." Excel, for example, recruited 500,000 American salespeople in one year at one point and quickly became the 4th largest long distance phone service in America. Yet, 80% of its salespeople were quitting each year. It quickly spiked and declined rapidly, eventually going bankrupt, ruining all distributors and all shareholders. Pre-Paid Legal also enjoyed fast growth, but now is in steep decline, with recruiting slowing and the ratio of "retail" customers to salespeople narrowing. My Travel Biz became the 17th largest travel agency in America, though virtually none of its salespeople actually earned a profit from retail travel sales. The big earners were making money off all the other salespeople's investments.

In these cases, the products are sold at competitive prices, but each salesperson must pay upfront and monthly fees in order to participate in the chain. The net result is to produce a large base of customers, but the incentives and promises made to the salespeople – which produce the sales – turn out to be false. The salespeople are churned in huge numbers as they discover that it is mathematically impossible for them to build their own large downlines.

Most other MLMs – which constitute a variation on the pyramid selling model – have virtually no retail customers at all and they usually hype grossly overpriced products. 40-60% of those high prices are then transferred to the top of the pyramid. In those cases, the MLM companies do not track retail sales at all, though they may officially claim that each salespeople is required to make retail sales.

The Stream Energy model builds in a requirement for a small number of retail sales, giving an appearance of greater validity. Some news analysts are blinded by the large number "sales" these schemes produce. They also do not understand the pyramid pay plan that tricks the salespeople into losing their investments and wasting their time and effort.

See the full complaint.

This page last updated on 8/28/09