Florian Cramer on Wed, 30 Sep 1998 20:41:21 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Pyramid Schematics [1/2]


- copyrighted by "anonymous"

{a free-lance writer inspiring billions throughout the ages}

The Post-Gazette ads say:

"GENERAL HELP - A Sharp & Motivated person can go Far.  No exp. nec.  We
train.  If not making $900 bi-weekly call Lea 771-6183."

"GENERAL HELP - Fun, fast paced atmosphere.  Will train.  If not at
$525/wk.  Call Niki 771-0494."

"GENERAL HELP - If you're WILD & CRAZY Like working with people &
making-good-money doing so Call Ms Burwell 820-9277"

"GENERAL HELP - Limited openings.  Cool place to work.  No exp.
If not at $550/wk, call Carrie 771-6188"

etc, etc..

No company name, no specifics on what the job is.  You can be "WILD &
CRAZY" & work in a "cool place."  No experience is necessary, they train
you, & you make good money.  But is it $450 a week?  Or $525 a week?  Or
$550 a week?  You'd think the amounts would all be the same - after all
these are all ads for the same "job."

Monday, April Fool's Day, I responded to Carrie's ad.  I reached a
recording along these lines: "Hello, you've reached Premier Selections.
We're sorry, all operators are currently busy, please stay on the line
until one of our representatives can help you.  BEEP."  It seemed like an
answering machine or voice-mail beep to me.  But I waited anyway.  A minute
or so later, another recording was heard: "If you'd like to review your
message, press 1.  If you'd like to re-record your message, press 2.  If
you'd like to send your message, press 3."  This was repeated another time
& I was disconnected.  Odd.  What kind of business would be so confused as
to have a voice-mail message ask you to wait for an operator?

I called again & left my name & phone number.  The next day, my call was
returned.  As they were setting an appointment for me, I tried to ask some
questions:  "Uh, your ad's a little vague.. - What kind of job is this?"
"We're a manager training center."  I didn't get very far with my
questioning but I was scheduled for an interview the next day.  I was given
an extremely confusing set of directions to take me to 907 Chartiers Avenue
in McKees Rocks.  I was told to be punctual.

The appointment arrived & I was there on time.  Nothing on the outside of
the building indicated a business inside.  The room I walked into had a
window opening on the left with a sill with some clipboards with pens &
questionnaires.  The "Getting-to-know-you" form, as the staff there put it.
A young woman in her twenties on the other side of the window (in what I
took to be the office) told me to sit down & fill out the form.  I sat next
to another waiting man.  The form was a fairly standard application with a
question about how I'd heard about this job.  Through a newspaper ad?  If
so, was there a name in the ad?

The woman told my waiting companion that we'd both be interviewed together
when I was finished.  We were led by another young woman thru a door into a
hall & then thru another door into the office.  We were seated in 2 chairs
in front of a desk.  Stacy, as the new young woman was named, sat down
across from us.  The room was fairly bare.  A sign on the wall said
"Premier Selections", a phone was on the desk & some other papers - perhaps
other applications.  Woman #1 sat behind us.  Stacy explained:  "That's my
boss.  Don't be nervous.  She's watching me - not you."

Stacy had the charm of a hostess & the nylons of a typical office worker.
All smiles & pleasantries.  She just wanted us to relax for our getting
acquainted session.  I had left out the name associated with the ad I'd
responded to.  Stacy needed to know it.  My companion applicant hadn't
filled in all of the form.  Was he currently employed?  Yes.  Where?  At a
recycling plant.  "Oh, that must be fun - rustling around in all those
papers!" Stacy said.  Fun?  Her attempt fell a bit flat so she qualified:
"I mean, my husband's a garbageman - so I know all about it."  Really?
Could her husband be a "Garbologist" instead?  Meaning a person who snoops
thru other people's garbage to find out information about them?

She continued, "If you were to choose to be an animal, which one would you
choose?"  I chose a creature not noted for its viciousness.  "Oh yes,
that's a popular choice."  She wanted us to rate ourselves on a scale of
one to ten with ten being the best.  She gave the example of "Wild & Crazy"
- interesting, somehow I wouldn't expect most offices to want a "wild &
crazy" manager.  It struck me as an unusual word choice - maybe I'm getting
too old.  Was Stacy "Ms Burwell"?  "You'll have to go thru a 5 to 7 week
training period.  Is that okay?"  Yes, it was okay but I asked:  "Will we
get paid for our training period?"  She hesitated slightly, "You can make
between 200 to 300 dollars a week during training!"  "Does that mean we're
working on commission?"  Again, a slight hesitation.  "Uh, yes."  "Does
that mean that we'll be selling something?"

At this point, the "boss", woman #1, interrupted:  "Stacy's in training.
She doesn't know everything about the job yet.  If we were to explain it
all to you today, it would take 3 hours.  If we decide to interview you
further we'll explain it all in detail.  You understand - we don't have
time to go into details in this initial interview."  "Yes, but I just
wanted to know things like what kind of office will we be managing & what
we'll be selling."  "Yes, yes, but you'll have to wait until the 2nd
interview.  You see, we weed out about 3 quarters of the applicants first &
we don't want to waste our time explaining if you're not accepted."

Stacy continued: "We have to run a check on you 1st thru our head office in
Cincinatti."  Woman #1: "That's a criminal check."  Stacy: "It only takes
about an hour, so If you call me back in about an hour & a half I can tell
you if you've passed.  If you do, then we'll schedule a 3 hour appointment
for you where we'll explain further."  A criminal check in an hour?  That
strikes me as highly improbable!

As we were leaving, my co-applicant & I chatted outside.  I said "They'll
never hire me."  He said "I didn't know it meant selling, I don't want to
sell anything."  "Yeah, me either, I think it's some sort of con game."

I called later & identified myself.  No, I was not on the list of people to
be called in for another interview.  "Can you tell me why?  Does this mean
that I didn't pass a criminal check?"  "Oh, I don't know, there could be a
variety of reasons - the head office makes the decisions."  "But, can you
give me any idea?"  "I'm very sorry, but I don't know & I should really get
off the phone now."  Hmm, I guess I should've said I'd like to be a shark.
Something smells fishy.

Suspicious, I asked a friend to apply.  Let's call her "Agent #2".  Perhaps
if she identified herself as a "tiger" - destined to "climb to the top over
others" she might prove to be more likely material to advance in the ranks.
By the weekend, she'd gotten no response to her message.

I started investigating.  At the Carnegie Library there were no listings
for "Premier Selections" or "Premiere Selections" in Pennsylvania or Ohio
in the Dun's Regional Business Directory or in the 1996 Pennsylvania
Business Directory or in the 1995 Pittsburgh Business Directory or in the
1995 Directory of Corporate Affiliations CD-ROM or in the American Business
Disc.  There was one article about Premier Selections listed in the
InfoTrac General Business File about the unveiling of luxury hotel-barges.
It didn't seem related.  There was a Premiere Selections real estate
company in Maryland.  It didn't seem related.  There were 2 businesses in
New Jersey.  One for meats & one for seafood.  They didn't seem related.

I inquired about pyramid schemes & was given a relevant issue of the
Pennsylvania Securities Commission "Investor Alert".  In this publication
the scheme is defined as follows:

"In its purest form, a pyramid sales scheme involves the collection of
money from individuals on the bottom to pay other individuals further up
the pyramid.  The program appeals simply to the greed of individuals and
their willingness to take the risk that the pyramid will last until they
get to the top."  This seems like a model for capitalism in general to me -
but, then, I'm naive.

I asked about whether there's a government agency that all businesses are
required to register with.  The Corporation Bureau of Harrisburg was
suggested.  I phoned them & learned that "Premier Selections" is listed at
the address that I'd visited them at & that the name is "Fictitious" - a
legal non-corporate designation.  In other words, it's not a corporation,
simply a name.  I was informed that no proof of the the business's
legitimacy is required in the registration process.  If the business's HQ
is in a different state that information needn't be part of the
registration.  The date that they filed was February 8th, 1996.

I called the Securites Commission.  I was told that unless money was
solicited from me that it was out of the Commission's jurisdiction.  I
commented that I believed that money would've been requested from me if I'd
moved on to the next phase but that I thought that I'd asked too many
awkward questions.  The Commission man wasn't sure if every business is
required to have a license.  He suggested calling the police & the Better
Business Bureau to find out if they'd had any complaints.  This was shortly
before 5PM on the friday before the Easter weekend.  There was no more time
for such calls to the BBB & I didn't want to call the police.

Sunday, April 7th, I bought the newspaper again & looked thru the Help
Wanteds.  I compared them with the previous week's with a new eye.  In the
March 31st paper I found 10 suspicious listings under GENERAL HELP.  In
April 7th's I found 14.  Six of the names listed in both weeks were the
same.  I decided to call all of the more recent listings on Easter Sunday
in the hope that I'd get all voice-mail messages which I could compare.

The 1st one I called, Mr Franklin, was a new name.  His message advertised
"Premier Sensations" - not Selections.  There was no answer at the next 3
numbers.  Lea's message mentioned "Premier Selections".  Niki's phone
number, 299-7501, had changed from last week's listing, 771-0494.  771-0494
was now Carrie's number - which had been 771-6188.  771-6188 had been the
number I'd called for Stacy to find out if I could move onto the next step
- presumably it was the office number.  771-6188 was not listed in any of
the ads I noticed in the April 7th paper.  When I called Niki's new number,
I got a person rather than a recording.  I identified myself as a wrong
number caller & hung up.

Mr. Franklin's ad didn't mention a specific amount of money - it just had
large multiple dollar signs.  His phone number, 820-9277, turned out to be
the same as Anne's whose ad mentioned $9.50 an hour.  The previous week
this had been Ms Burwell's number whose ad mentioned "good money".  Could
Stacy be Ms Burwell & Anne?  Later research uncovered that Anne's ads were
the same as 2 ads of Kim's of the March 17th & 24th papers which were just
slightly different variations on Kim's earlier ads of March 3rd & 10th.
This same number was used by a Mr. Martin of March 24th.  Kim's ads
mentioned $9.50 an hour but Mr. Martin's mentioned $1,600 per month
(approximately the same at 40 hours per week).  Confusing?

At another number I was connected to an AT&T Mailbox - presumably a mistake
listing in the paper.  Another's message seemed more likely to be
legitimate.  Another was a no answer.  I decided to concentrate only on the
ones most obviously interconnected.

I didn't want to call the police.  After all, I don't want to put people in
jail - I'm more interested in "poetic justice."  But what?  How could I
both prove my hypothesis that Premier Selections/Sensations is a pyramid
scheme & throw a wrench into its potential destructiveness at the same
time?  I called my friend Becky.  She's brilliant for exactly this type of
thinking.  She suggested that I run an ad just like theirs to see if they'd
call me.  HHmmm..  We brainstormed business names - she suggested "Premier

After my call with her, I started refining & permutating the idea.  Perhaps
I could make an ad using one of their phone numbers.  I could make
outlandish promises of money targetted at people who might be having
difficulty getting a job because they're too Wild & Crazy for most
employers.  I could use the name "Connie" - short for con artist.  The
basic idea being that the Premier Selections people might realize that
someone's hip to them when they start getting phone calls as response to
ads parodying their own that they're not running.  Then I could see what
happens.  Would they close down their office & move on?

Talking to "Agent #2", I mulled over possible ads.  Since none of their
newspaper ads mention "Premier Selections" by name, perhaps I should just
make reference to P.S. - as if it were a person's initials.  Suddenly it
hit me.  How could I be so slow?  P.S. = Pyramid Scheme & Premier
Selections.  I picked the name for "my company": Pyramid Schematics - each
word even has the same amount of letters as Premier Selections!  Perfect
for my sense of humor.  But would the Post-Gazette run something so

"GENERAL HELP - Nobody else will hire you?  We train.  If not at $1000/wk
call Connie - 820-9277 & ask about Pyramid Schematics."

I decided to try to run this ad in the next Sunday's Post-Gazette.  In the
meantime, more investigating & more help from friends.  I called my friend
"Rick Jackson" ("Agent #3") who called "Niki".  The connection has been
established between Niki & Carrie & therefore between Niki & Premier
Selections.  "Rick" called.  "Niki" "wasn't there" but "Leslie" was.  The
name of their company?  "Prime-O."  The nature of their business?  They're
not tellin'.  "Rick" asked her to be frank with him.  "Leslie" laughed,
saying he seemed like a "sharp guy" but said that she really couldn't tell
him.  He said something to the effect of "So you just screen the calls &
you don't know what's going on, is that right?"  She agreed.

"Rick" suggested to me that this might be a cover for an "escort service" -
hence the "Wild & Crazy" line.  But it seemed unnecessarily surreptitious.
He thought that these ads in the paper are a rather odd way of conducting
pyramid scheme business.  Still, he agreed that something was being hidden.
Perhaps they're trying to find con artists to rip off other people over
the phone?

I tried calling "Prime-O" myself.  The usual evasiveness.  They set an
appointment for me in Coraopolis & gave me directions.  The interesting
thing about the directions is that they gave me as little street info as
possible.  Everything was "turn at the bank" or "walk 2 blocks" - just like
"Premier Selections" describing their locale in terms of its proximity to
fast food joints instead of street names. Might this be a good way of
making a place hard to find using a map?  Or am I just being suspicious?
Their address was given as on 5th.  There are quite a few "5th"s in the
Greater Pittsburgh area.  "Premier Selections"'s address was on Chartiers -
there are quite a few "Chartiers"s in McKees Rocks.  Choosing such an
address is ideal for creating confusion.

I called one of the other suspicious ads.  Same routine but seeming a
little more concrete.  I gave a fake name.  Once again, I'd be trained to
be a branch manager for a national wholesaler.  What do they sell?  Evasive
answer.  What's their name?  Utopia Unlimited.  Is there a connection?  Not
enough info yet.  But, like their 2 predecessors, the address was near
route 51.  Coincidence?

I called the Ohio Corporation Bureau to inquire about whether there is,
indeed, a Premier Selections HQ in Cinncinatti.  No such listing.  How
about Premier Sensations?  No such listing.  How about Prime-O?  No such
listing.  How about Utopia Unlimited?  No such listing.

I mentioned that I was calling from Pennsylvania.  It turned out that there
was a listing for a "Prime-O-Sash" which was incorporated in PA & which
opened a branch in Ohio on 7/11/73 & whose OH license was cancelled in '76
for non-payment of franchise tax.  In order to open this branch they had to
present a certificate of good standing from their own PA Secretary of
State.  The last address they had for this company was in Pittsburgh.

Back to calling the Harrisburg Bureau again.  No listing for "Premier
Sensations" or "Prime-O".  But there is a listing for "Prime-O-Sash" in
Philadelphia incorporated 3/21/68 - with no branches listed in Pittsburgh.
Is it possible that "Prime-O" is trying to appear to be affiliated with an
established above-board business?  "Utopia Unlimited" is listed as another
fictitious name company founded 5/20/83 in Philadelphia.  Are they both
legal businesses?  "Utopia Unlimited" is also not listed as having branches
in Pittsburgh - they could just be expanding.

Another friend, "Agent #4", called several ads - none of his calls were
ever returned.

I called the Better Business Bureau & talked with a representative named
Greg.  "Premier Selections" is listed with them as a "management training
company."  Someone earlier that day had already called about them.
"Premier Sensations" was not listed under that name but a "Neo Sensations"
was listed in connection with 820-9277.  "Neo Sensations" is "too new for a
Customer Experience Report."  According to the BBB, NS began business in
July 1995 & the BBB opened their file on them in October of '95 - probably
as a result of someone's inquiry.  Given that they hadn't been in business
for 6 months yet, NS was too new for a report.  The BBB then sent out a
questionnaire to "Neo Sensations" which was returned with information
identifying the business as an "international wholesale company
distributing a complete line of designer fragrances."  The BBB had no
listing for "Prime-O" or "Utopia Unlimited."

I tried calling the Pennsylvania Commonwealth State Department's
Commissioner of Professional & Occupational Affairs to ask about licensing
requirements for management training programs.  They suggested the
Department of Labor & Industry.  I tried calling them but it was busy & it
didn't seem like the appropriate agency so I pursued a different tact.  I
called the Mayor's Office for Pittsburgh who directed me to their Business
Registration Department.  They informed me that businesses are required to
register but not to have licenses.

I called the McKees Rocks Borough's Secretary's Office (where one of the
Premier Selections offices is) & spoke to the Secretary's secretary who
referred me to the tax department.  The tax department referred me back to
the Secretary who informed me in a very flustered way that he knew of no
such business in McKees Rocks & that they're required to have an occupancy
permit & a business privilege license.

I called the Coraopolis Secretary/Tax Office who referred me to the zoning
officer, Mr. Pitassi.  He informed me that such matters are out of his
jurisdiction & that he knows nothing about it & had no idea who would know.

But what's the point of all this?  I have nothing against "illegal"
businesses per se.  My pursuit of this investigation has more to do with
just plain curiosity.  Having sucked me near whatever they're doing by
placing an ad in the paper that I responded to, I just want to understand
what's happening.  If it's a pyramid scheme with a large victim potential
I'm inclined to throw a little monkeywrench into the works.

To me, government is organized crime & organized crime is government - 2
sides of the same coin.  I'm reminded of prohibition times.  If prohibition
hadn't been put into effect, people wouldn't have been able to get rich off
of bootlegging.  The "War on Drugs", for example, can be easily perceived
as an application of the lesson learned from prohibition.  Namely, by
outlawing something, prices can be outrageously inflated, cronies of
politicians can be drug smugglers (think of the heroin industry during the
Vietnam War era & the cocaine industry associated with the Iran-Contra
affair) & both the smugglers & the government can make more money at the
expense of the tax-payer.

As for that crime not co-created by the government for its own benefit,
there's always the angle that any attempt of a person to live "freely" is a
crime insofar as all aspects of life are ultimately potential targets for
laws not made by the people targetted.  As such, the people with the
integrity to live in accordance with their own moral code are inevitably
"criminalized".  So, once again, the point of all this is not to try to
bring in government disruption of organized crime - it's more to become
aware of my environment & interpolate my sense of humor into it in some
prankish way.

With this in mind, on Thursday, an ad was paid for for the upcoming Sunday
edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reading as follows:

GENERAL HELP Nobody hires you? If not at $1000/wk call Connie

820-9277 Pyramid Schematics

I abbreviated the ad because it was too expensive otherwise.  While placing
the ad there was some confusion from the person at the Post-Gazette.  At
1st, she thought that a wording change was being proposed for an ad already
called in & she "couldn't find" the ad that she thought was to be changed.
Then it was made clear to her that this was a new ad.  Recognizing the
phone number, she was surprised because "Neo Sensations already has so many
ads in".

The person placing the ad said that they'd just gotten this job & that
their boss, Connie, had called ahead & just given them a money order & told
them to go place the ad.  There was confusion because the Post-Gazette
person not only didn't understand why "Neo Sensations" would be running yet
another ad but also didn't understand why the wording would include "Nobody
hires you?" (the question mark was particularly a problem) & what "Pyramid
Schematics" meant.  The ad was paid for with a money order supposedly from
a "Connie Dobbs" (a name chosen not only because of the "con artist" aspect
mentioned earlier but also because it's the name of the wife of the founder
of the Church of the SubGenius - salesman J.R. "Bob" Dobbs - a subject too
complicated to go into at the moment).  Connie's address on the MO was
given as: 937 Chartears St., McKees Rocks, PA - the address being a crude
take-off of the "Premier Selections" address.  It remains to be seen
whether it'll actually be in the paper & what the result will be..
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