Scammers, Pyramid Schemes & Con Artists: A Reading List Inspired by The Dream Podcast

It’s Small Business Saturday. You’re excited to see your friends and family members post their photos as they go out into their communities to support their local independent bookstores, that adorable coffee shop on the corner, the fun, nurturing ladies at the toy store downtown.

And then you see it. The person shaming her friends for frequenting Starbucks instead of buying an It Works! body fat wrap. The friend waxing poetic about how it feels to be a #girlboss entrepreneur—”Us small, independent business owners need to support each other!” The rage boils to the surface as you remember the 17 invitations to virtual parties you received last month, all the reminders leading up to those parties, the long-lost friends asking to meet you for coffee…only to realize they cornered you between the barista and the bakery case to sell you overpriced makeup.

It’s infuriating. And you wonder why more people aren’t talking about the predatory scams perpetrated on the public in the name of “being your best self.”

Recently, I fell in love with the podcast The Dream, hosted by Peabody and Emmy Award–winning journalist Jane Marie. Per their show description:

“What if we told you that with zero experience and only a few hundred dollars down, this podcast could change your life? Well, we’d be lying. This season on The Dream, Jane Marie dives into the world of pyramid schemes, multi-level marketing, and all the other businesses that require their members to recruit their nearest and dearest in hopes of a commission. Join us as we trace the path of get-rich schemes from Jane’s roots in rural Michigan all the way to the White House.”

As someone who has proudly hated on MLMs for decades and who frequents anti-MLM Facebook groups, I could not have hit “subscribe” on this podcast fast enough. Finally, someone was going to do the investigative work to prove what so many of us have suspected for years: our friends and family members are being fleeced.

Convinced they’re budding entrepreneurs, they’re pouring their precious time and money into something that only serves to line the pockets of already-rich CEOs. And then the pain trickles down. They are unable to make the scratch they were promised, so they turn to their friends, convincing us that we’re Big Corporation shills for buying our essential oils at Target instead of from their quaint little independent business. But we all know the score. Sitting at the top of their “independent” business is a corporation. A massive corporation that doesn’t have to pay its employees a regular salary, doesn’t have to offer benefits, doesn’t have to abide by basic tax and employment laws. It’s actually a genius plan, if you think about it.

I’ve seen so many of my intelligent friends, desperate to provide for their family or to feel more fulfilled, plunk down hundreds (or thousands) of dollars to “get in on the ground floor of this incredible opportunity.” Reality is that unless you entered the market shortly after the multi-level marketing company began, you’re relegated to DM-begging your Facebook friends to buy this milkshake, this mascara, this children’s book. The odds of you getting rich from an MLM are slimmer than the odds that I’ll ever be a size 2 or that I’ll manage to remember to buy cat food at the grocery store. Nope, I will ALWAYS have to make a 10pm run in my pajamas. That’s just how statistics work, my friends (I have no idea how statistics work).

I want everyone in my life to listen to The Dream, to understand the true underbelly of the MLM network. However, I think that this podcast is only the start of opening people’s eyes about the insidious underbelly of this particular marketing strategy. I wanted to find some books about the history of pyramid schemes and…it wasn’t easy. The majority of what you’ll find are pro-MLM.  They have covers that use words like POWER and RICH and SUPERSTAR.  And the dollar signs…oh dear Lord, the dollar signs. These books claim to give you the easy steps needed to be an overnight millionaire. You, too, can buy a vacation home while you sit in your house sans bra with a messy top knot! Less available are the books about the havoc these companies wreak in the lives of those who buy so fully into their promise. And even more rare are books on this topic by people of color…I suspect pumping your money into the pockets of a con artist is more of a white people thing.

So here is a small collection of books about scams, con artists, pyramid schemes, Ponzi schemes and the like.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicone Valley Startup by John Carreyrou

After intrepid Book Riot Sales Manager Jessica Woodbury started to talk about this on the Book Riot back channels, it was like a wave took over all the editors and contributors. This story about Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos was the ultimate page-turner. Carreyrou’s investigative journalism brought us a story of intrigue and scandal like I’ve never seen.

 

Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam by Pope Brock

This is the story of John R. Brinkley, the man who convinced other men that implanting goat testicles into their bodies was a cure for impotence. Need I say more? You know you’re hooked.

 

 

Ponzi’s Scheme: The True Story of a Financial Legend by Mitchell Zuckoff

We know the term “Ponzi scheme,” but most of us don’t know the man behind the scam. Learn about how Charles Ponzi changed the face of financial skullduggery.

 

 

 

Simply Rich: Life Lessons from the Cofounder of Amway by Rich DeVos

Before his daughter-in-law was talking about grizzlies that attack schools, Rich DeVos was running the nation’s most notorious MLM, Amway. This is his memoir.

 

 

 

Empire of Deception: The Incredible Story of a Master Swindler Who Seduced a City and Captivated the Nation by Dean Jobb

Slick lawyer Leo Koretz convinced people to sink their money into nonexistent timberland and oil wells in Panama. Jobb walks us through how he made history.

 

 

When the Wolves Bite: Two Billionaires, One Company, and an Epic Wall Street Battle by Scott Wapner

This book dives into the inside workings of a clash over famous MLM Herbalife.

 

 

 

The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It… Every Time by Maria Konnikova

The book takes a look into the minds of people like infamous scam artists Bernie Madoff, Jim Bakker and figures out what they all share and gaining insights into their motives.

 

 

 

My Adventures with Your Money: George Graham Rice and the Golden Age of the Con Artist by T.D. Thornton

George Graham Rice was considered a master swindler in the golden age of con artists. This is the story of his history, from his birth as Jacob Simon Herzig to the gold rush to his friendships with gangsters.

 

 

Ask Me About Mary Kay: The True Story Behind the Bumper Sticker on the Pink Cadillac by Jackie Brown

A look behind-the-scenes of makeup giant Mary Kay from someone who rose up through the ranks. She has insight into what is wrong with MLMs that few others have.

 

 

No One Would Listen: A True Financial Thriller by Harry Markopolos

A story from the guy who caught Bernie Madoff, Markopolos details his pursuit of one of the most famous criminals of our age.

 

 

 

Tricky Vic: The Impossibly True Story of the Man Who Stole the Eiffel Tower by Greg Pizzoli

Known as Count Victor Lustig, Robert Miller moves to Paris with the sole intention of becoming the world’s most successful con man. He manages to “sell” the city’s most famous landmark.

 

 

The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man by David Maurer

A collection of stories about Maurer’s discussions with real-life swindlers and con men. He gets the inside story of the Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man, their lives and what makes them tick.

 

 

 

Are you a fan of The Dream? Do you have any more (hopefully more diverse) books to add to this list?

Do you like podcasts like This American Life, RadioLab, or Planet Money? Annotated is kinda like those, but for books. Go here to find out more, or click the image below:
Elizabeth Allen: Lifelong book lover, Elizabeth Allen managed to get a degree in something completely unrelated that she never intends to use. She’s a proud Connecticut native who lives in a picturesque small town with her black olive-obsessed toddler daughter, her prom date-turned-husband, and her two dim-witted cats Penny Lane and Gretchen Wieners. She spends her days trying to find a way to be paid to read while drinking copious amounts of coffee, watching episodes of Gilmore girls until the DVDs fail, waiting for her husband to feed her, and being obnoxiously vain about her hair. Elizabeth’s work can be found at www.blackwhitereadbooks.com, where she is currently reading and reviewing all of the books referenced in Gilmore girls. She is also the cohost of two podcasts discussing the work of Amy Sherman-Palladino (“Under the Floorboards” and “Stumbling Ballerinas”). Basically, her entire goal in life is to be a bookish Lorelai Gilmore. She clearly dreams big. Twitter: @BWRBooks