Bumble BFF has an MLM problem

Multi-level marketers are all over Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok. But when someone tries to recruit you through a friendship app, it feels like even more of a violation.

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Back in June, freshly vaccinated and longing for relief from the pandemic blues, I downloaded Bumble BFF again.

My expectations were low, having tried it once before with little success. But before long, I matched with Beth, who had similar interests and lived relatively close. “There’s no such thing as too many friends!” her profile read. “I believe that relationships are the foundation of the world and am always trying to add value to those around me.”

It struck me as a hokey sentiment, but she seemed sweet. We chatted about her love of the outdoors and my penchant for murder mysteries, and I was flattered, if surprised, when she suggested a phone call.

“Totally no pressure. But I think you’d be a great fit for my mentors.”

For more than an hour, we swapped travel stories and talked about how the pandemic changed our priorities. She was nannying, trying to become a full-time entrepreneur, and casually mentioned she’d met several professional mentors through a friend.

Later, just before hanging up, she brought them up again. “Totally no pressure,” she said, assuring me she wanted to be friends no matter what. “But I think you’d be a great fit for my mentors. Should I mention your name?”

I should've listened to the alarm bell ringing in my head. But, lured by the promise of friendship and professional development, I didn’t. And after a few texts, another phone call, and a video chat where we talked vaguely about our life goals, I found myself on Zoom with Beth. I was equal parts curious, skeptical, and annoyed, still waiting to learn details about the enigmatic “e-commerce” business that had supposedly made her mentors their fortune.

After a long spiel involving a stick figure salesperson named Steve who she drew on a whiteboard, she finally revealed the nature of the enterprise: It was multi-level marketing giant Amway. And her “millionaire” mentors? Part of the company's training arm, World Wide Group.

Multi-level marketing — also known as network marketing, direct selling, or social selling — is a business model that sells products through independent distributors. Consultants make money selling inventory and by recruiting other distributors, and they’re told that if they work hard and use their connections, they can support a full-time lifestyle on part-time hours.

MLMs are also notoriously scammy. Companies like LuLaRoe, wellness-product purveyor HerbaLife, skincare brand Nu Skin, and supplement company AdvoCare have all paid millions to settle lawsuits alleging they actually operate as illegal pyramid schemes.

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These businesses are also a hot topic in popular culture. Take the recent Amazon Prime documentary series LuLaRich, which chronicles the exploitative practices and unfulfilled promises of legging company LuLaRoe, or the popular podcast The Dream, which spent its first season dissecting the dubious recruiting tactics MLMs use.

Bumble explicitly bars “solicitation to join MLM or ‘network marketing’ groups” in one’s profile or in chats. It is an offense that can get you kicked off the app. But it seems the rule doesn't apply to off-app conversations like the ones I had with Beth. And restrictions or not, MLMers clearly manage to fly under the radar.

Though experts I spoke with say they’re unaware of any efforts to track MLM activity on friendship apps like Bumble BFF, I spoke directly with six women who were approached by these company consultants on the app and found many more who shared their stories publicly on Twitter and Reddit.

MLM companies are everywhere on social media. By this point, who hasn’t been approached on Facebook by some long-ago classmate looking to reconnect — and sell you nail polish or charcoal toothpaste? But it hadn’t occurred to me that I might see MLMers on Bumble BFF, an app built around one-on-one conversations. It felt like more of a violation, somehow. And I couldn't stop thinking about people who, like me, were probably driven to the app by loneliness and isolation.

During that Zoom call, Beth clocked my hesitance. She assured me she wasn’t trying to “recruit” me for anything — she only wanted to see me succeed.

“Anybody on the street can go online and sign up for Amway,” Beth told me. “Not everyone can get this mentorship.”

That’s when I knew for certain. We weren’t going to be friends.

False promises

Ex-MLMers charge that companies like Amway and LuLaRoe peddle false promises and rely on manipulative recruitment techniques that verge on brainwashing. Since distributors often get a percentage of sales of everyone they recruit, there’s an incentive to bring on as many “downline” sellers as possible.

But for anyone but the top recruiters, success proves mostly unattainable; it’s estimated between 73 and 99 percent of MLM sellers lose money or make no profit. And when consultants make more of their money recruiting than selling, an MLM is entering “pyramid scheme” territory.

“For me, if you’re just selling an opportunity,” says Daryl Koehn, a professor of business ethics at DePaul University, “then you’re potentially in the realm of something that’s problematic."

Direct sellers intentionally approach people who are struggling or facing a transition, says former LuLaRoe retailer Roberta Blevins, who appears in the documentary LuLaRich. And everyone is considered a target — particularly family and friends, though strangers are absolutely fair game. Blevins was taught to scroll social media looking for complaints, because complainers are potential recruits and customers.

Roberta Blevins in the documentary LuLaRichYouTube/Amazon Prime

“It’s basically like hunting season,” Blevins says. “Anybody that would complain about their jeans being too tight or their clothes not fitting — ‘Oh my God, LuLaRoe is so stretchy, you would love it.’ You're absolutely, 100 percent taught to look for people who have needs that your scam can ‘fix.’”

These companies have flourished during the pandemic, recording $40.1 billion in sales in 2020, a roughly 14 percent increase over 2019, according to the Direct Selling Association. Researchers theorize the health crisis created near-perfect conditions for MLMs to proliferate, with many people unemployed, lacking child care that would allow them to work outside the home, or searching for remote work. The DSA reports that roughly three-quarters of sellers are women.

The pandemic has also pushed us further onto social media, where MLMs have thrived on platforms like TikTok despite efforts to ban them there. Recruiters pop up everywhere from LinkedIn to Tinder. Blevins isn’t surprised they’re on Bumble BFF, especially since users share details in their profiles that expose vulnerabilities, like a recent move or job change.

“To find a friend or to find a community or to find connection — those are all things that MLMs sell anyway,” says Blevins. “So for anybody in an MLM, they’re thinking, ‘This is perfect. This is an app that’s going to bring me all of these women, and I can connect with them and share my business with them.’”

Hannah Monson, a social worker from Minneapolis, ran into MLM recruiters her first week on Bumble BFF. It always started with small talk, followed by questions about her job and then a pitch, usually for skincare brand Monat. “Mainly I felt annoyed I wasted any time on someone who was just looking to make money off of me,” she says.

“If you want to have any kind of transactional discussion, please take it off the app.”

Tracy, an autistic woman from McHenry, Ill. who has asked to use a pseudonym, was approached by a distributor from Amway. Opening up has been difficult for her since she lost friendships due to her several chronic illnesses, including Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS). She now wonders if she was approached by an MLM because her Bumble BFF profile mentioned her disability.

“It’s incredibly lonely being homebound, and I was hoping to find someone to come play a game, have coffee, tea, and some conversation maybe once a month,” Tracy says. “Because of my bad experiences when I became disabled, I wanted people to know ahead of time that I am disabled and autistic so I didn’t waste time with people who wouldn’t be accepting of it.”

It meant a lot to her when a match asked her to coffee. But when the day came, the would-be friend didn’t show and stopped responding to texts. Tracy later discovered through a mutual friend that the woman was an Amway seller looking to recruit. She’s not exactly sure why the woman didn’t show up, but Blevins says it’s what MLMers are trained to do if a target responds negatively or asks too many questions: Ghost and block.

When I asked Bumble for comment, they sent a copy of its policy against MLMs. The company didn’t respond to questions about the policy’s effectiveness or cases of MLMers luring people off the platform.

“If you want to have any kind of transactional discussion,” the policy reads, “please take it off the app.”

Red flags

The frustration of dodging MLM pushers has led some users to give up on Bumble BFF entirely, including Kristi, a quantitative researcher from Arlington, Va. who asked that Input use only her first name.

Kristi’s experience mirrors mine almost exactly. After exchanging a few messages, she and a new match made plans to meet. They talked about career goals and pandemic epiphanies, with the other woman dropping occasional references to her “mentors” all the while. The woman eventually asked Kristi to read a book, Rich Dad’s Cashflow Quadrant, and pushed her to attend a meeting with higher-ups.

But when Kristi asked direct questions, like the names of these mentors, the woman gave vague, partial answers. Kristi’s suspicions were confirmed after she asked for a link to the woman’s business website, which was clearly connected to Amway.

“I’ve met different people on Bumble, and there’s definitely people there who are lonely and vulnerable.”

Kristi understood this woman, a single mom, was likely recruited because she was vulnerable herself. Having been brought up in a religious cult, The Family International, Kristi also recognized her almost-friend would likely not be receptive to being called a scammer.

Ultimately, Kristi decided to confront the woman with financial stats showing very few people ever make a profit with Amway. Then Kristi reported and blocked the account.

The whole thing felt “disingenuous,” Kristi says, and she knows many might not see the signs until it's too late.

“I’ve met different people on Bumble, and there’s all types, but there’s definitely people there who are lonely and vulnerable,” Kristi says. “I don’t know if everyone is going to say, ‘Oh, you’re in an MLM, no thanks,’ like I did.”

Users I spoke with weren’t sure what platforms could do to rein in MLMs, short of moderating private chats, which obviously is a nonstarter. Steven Hassan, a mental health counselor and cult researcher, says that the best way to keep people safe from manipulation online is to educate them about red flags.

He says users should bring up MLMs before agreeing to meet in person, either by clarifying that they’re not interested or asking a match outright if they’re involved in one. Be particularly wary of anyone who won’t tell you the name of their business. And watch out for people who are overly complimentary — this could be “love bombing,” a tactic cults and MLMs use to influence people with affection.

“If some product or some business opportunity is legitimate, it should stand up to scrutiny,” Hassan says. “Do your research first, not later.”

To find a friend — a real friend — you have to be willing to let your guard down.

As for Beth, I did try some of the samples she mailed me — mostly face masks, wellness supplements, and CBD lotions — but found none I would actually consider buying.

I texted her that I was writing this article, to give her a chance to say her piece. I also told her how much it hurt me that she tried to make a profit from someone looking for a friend.

Not surprisingly, Beth hasn’t responded. And though I’m not sure whether she blocked me or deleted her account, she’s disappeared from my Bumble BFF matches.

I can’t say I mind, but I do wonder — would I have given Beth the time of day if she had messaged me on Facebook or Instagram instead?

I don’t think I would have, and that’s because I’ve dodged enough DMs from high school acquaintances that I know what to expect.

But Bumble BFF is a different story. To find a friend — a real friend — you have to be willing to be vulnerable. You have to be willing to let your guard down.

And that’s exactly where they want you.