Remember the Nigerian Prince email scam? It’s funny now because people know not to fall for it.
It’s taken me a long time to admit this, but I’ve fallen for scams. It’s embarrassing to admit because I felt stupid and gullible. Shouldn’t I know better after being raised by paranoid Asian parents? But my parents taught me how to be wary of slick salespeople and to always read the fine print. They didn’t know how to prepare me for internet scams.
The first time I fell for a scam was in college. Money was tight and after searching through the internet for ‘ways to make money,’ I stumbled on this offer: for only $10, you can learn how to make $1,000 a month while working at home for only a few hours. It sounded too good to be true. I bet you can guess what happened next.
I paid the $10 and immediately received an email with the strategies of how to make money from home…which was to take that pitch that suckered me in and send it out to everyone I knew. Shit. I tried to contact the person who ‘sold’ me the pitch, but they blocked me.
Luckily I only lost $10 but it felt like $100 to a poor college student. I swore to never fall for something like that again, but scammers have gotten more sophisticated. Instead of the short con for a few dollars, they invest in the long con for thousands more.
Even though I was a military spouse when this happened, this situation can happen to anyone and it has (more on that later). During my first year as a military spouse, I was isolated and miserable. I lived in a rural area where I struggled to meet like-minded people. I desperately wanted to join a mastermind and learn how to build passive income streams. I wrote a LinkedIn article on how remote jobs can save military families which garnered a lot of positive attention within the military community. Including the attention of a woman who I will refer to as Christina (not her real name).
Please note that showing these messages makes me uncomfortable. Please be kind.
Christina sent me a LinkedIn connection request with a message. She complimented me on my article and my character. She made herself relatable by mentioning that she was a military spouse, and used keywords that jumped out at me like “mastermind,” “impact,” “pay it forward,” and “mentors.” She got my attention and I became her mark.
Red Flag #1: There was no real evidence of the program.
Christina shared that she and her husband (let’s call him Josh*) were running a mastermind program that was originally started by their mentors; a couple who “created passive income assets that replaced their military incomes by their early 30s.” This piqued my interest because I was also looking for ways to build passive income. I was drawn by the generosity of these “mentors” who wanted to pay it forward by teaching others how to be financially free.
Intrigued but still wary, I asked for a website or Facebook group link to prove that the mastermind existed, but she said there wasn’t a website and steered the conversation back to the benefits of the program. Later on, she sent me the names of the mentors, who I looked up on LinkedIn. They seemed legit and they did own a company, but I couldn’t find out much about the company.
Remember: I was hungry for connection so I rationalized that it wouldn’t hurt to have one conversation. At this point, I was also unemployed and even though we weren’t struggling financially, I was trying to find alternative ways of making income without relying on a nine-to-five job. My husband reluctantly agreed to join the conversation, even though he was skeptical, but I brushed it off as it not being his ‘usual thing.’ Christina and I exchanged email addresses and set up a time for a virtual chat.
Red Flag #2: They always called from a public place.
Our first impression of Christina and Josh was that they were a nice couple that dressed even nicer, but we found it odd they were video conferencing from a Panera Bread. When we asked about it, they said that they just finished a networking event nearby and wanted to hop on a call with us right away instead of waiting to go home. We talked for over an hour and we seemed to have a lot in common. They said that they would get back to us after they spoke to their mentors to see if my husband I would be a good fit for their mastermind program.
In hindsight, it was clever of them to make the mastermind program seem exclusive and they did a good job of making us feel good about ourselves, but also reminded us that we needed to be ‘vetted’ first. About a week later, Christina wanted us to meet their mentors, but scheduling was more difficult this time because the mentors were ‘traveling’ a lot and they needed to ‘squeeze us in’ for a call that started at 9:30 pm on a weekday. I distinctly remember that being an odd arrangement, but now I think that it was another form of control. During that call with their mentors, Christina and Josh were at another public establishment, but I just brushed it off.
Red (and Final) Flag #3: They wanted our personal information.
After the call with “the mentors,” Christina messaged me and congratulated us because we were approved to join their mastermind. During our next (and final) call with Christina and Josh, they told us more about the mastermind program…but also didn’t tell us anything at the same time. They told us about the commitment they required from us (i.e. 8–10 weekly sessions with assignments every week), but they evaded questions that pertained to what the program actually looked like.
I asked if there were any costs associated with the program and they assured me there weren’t any. Towards the end of the call, they gave us our first assignment: to read a book by Robert Kiyosaki called “The Business of the 21st Century.” They wanted to send us a copy and they asked us for our address. We responded that we would just order it from Amazon, but they insisted that they would send us a copy of the book instead.
That’s when the alarm bells went off.
My husband and I looked at each other in silence. I turned back to Christina and Josh, told them that we would think about the program, and let them know of our decision in a couple of days. After ending the call, I immediately looked up the book on Amazon and I started reading the reviews.
My heart stopped.
There were at least five reviews that mentioned a “mentor” multi-level marketing (MLM) scheme, and two of those reviews sounded eerily similar to my experience (only I was approached virtually and not at Target).
I read every Amazon review that was less than three stars and scoured the internet for more evidence to confirm what I already knew. Reddit had at least two threads describing this scam and since then, there have been more (you can find them by doing a Google search of “reddit business of the 21st century mlm”).
I went from shock to disappointment to sheer embarrassment. I couldn’t believe that I let myself get fooled. I opened up to others and they tried to take advantage of me. It’s no wonder that they didn’t want us to buy the book on Amazon.
So, what did I do next? Blast them on LinkedIn? Send them a raging email? No.
They already wasted hours of my time and I wasn’t going to give them another second of it. I blocked them on my email and LinkedIn. There was a small chance that these people weren’t trying to scam me, but my experience and the stories on Amazon and Reddit were too much of a coincidence. Not to mention that less than 24 hours after I blocked Christina and Josh on LinkedIn, Christina texted me.
She said that she knew that I blocked her on LinkedIn and she thought that “we had enough respect for each other” that I could have at least cut ties amicably instead of just blocking and ghosting them. That text made me laugh. I had to admit, she was good.
I didn’t respond. I blocked her number too and moved on.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on you again.
Please do your research before you hand over your hard-earned money to strangers, and always listen to your gut. If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. Those ‘mentors’ and their followers are evil geniuses for targeting military families because we are a vulnerable group. The lack of community and financial uncertainty can be experienced by anyone, but it’s magnified within the military community.
These con artists are trained to be good at what they do, and they are probably convinced that they aren’t doing anything wrong. Victims of these scams shouldn’t feel ashamed for trying to do something that they thought would help them. Shame on these scammers for targeting hardworking people who are just trying to make a decent living, especially the people who serve our country.
There is one silver lining from this experience — it strengthened my marriage. It didn’t even cross my husband’s mind to say “I told you so.” Luckily, we didn’t share our personal information or lose any money, but I was upset for wasting our time. This happened over a year ago and I didn’t tell anyone because I was so embarrassed. Eventually, I forgave myself because that was a rough year for me, even more difficult than 2020, which is saying a lot. It’s not easy to admit that I was almost conned, but if sharing my story can keep someone else safe, then it’s worth it in the end. That’s why I’m sharing this story with you today, and I hope you pass this along to others you love to keep them safe too.