Snapping the chain letter

Finding a law that will shut down letterbox pyramid schemes is far from easy, says Paul Slade
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The Independent Online
In May 1995, Sally Brooker's car was repossessed, and she was hounded by debt collectors. Less than two years later, she has already earned more than pounds 200,000 and is likely to become a millionaire.

That, at any rate, is what the chain letter I have in front of me asks recipients to believe.

The letter makes two key claims: "Within 60 days you will receive up to pounds 50,000 in cash GUARANTEED" and "This service is perfectly legal." Both claims are nonsense, but determining just which piece of legislation can be used against any particular scheme is not so simple.

The letter goes on to suggest that I send pounds l to each of five individuals listed, adding my own name to the bottom of the list before circulating another 200 copies. Buying the mailing list, envelopes and stamps would apparently cost me pounds 83.

Like all chain letters, Ms Brooker's scheme depends on a constant flow of cash from new recruits to pay off those higher up the pyramid. And as with all chain letters, the scheme must eventually collapse as the number of people required to prop up the pyramid at each successive stage becomes larger and larger. Only those at the very top have any chance of making money before it collapses.

Say you were to take Ms Brooker's advice and send out 200 letters. If all those 200 people were to send out 200 letters of their own, that means 40,000 letters. If each of those 40,000 people were to send out 200, that would create 8 million letters - a population equivalent to that of New York City.

I'd never heard of the man who sent my own copy of the letter, but was able to get his telephone number. Let's just call him PG. "It was curiosity really," he says of his own part in the scheme. PG will not put a figure on his own take from the scheme, saying only: "It's not been brilliant."

So much for dreams of getting rich quick. What about the legality of such letters?

On the face of it, they seem to fall within the Department of Trade & Industry's definition of "money circulation schemes", defined as pyramids which "do little more than circulate money among the members".

The Trading Schemes Act (1996), which came into force on 6 February, provides hefty criminal penalties for those involved in money circulation schemes, but has yet to be used.

Tony Northcott, of the Institute of Trading Standards, says: "I used to believe that schemes like this were caught by the new trading schemes legislation. When we get complaints, we just pass them on to the Department of Trade and Industry, and they make a decision as to whether it's illegal or not."

But the DTI says that chain letters involving only a small sum are excluded from the new Act, which is targeted only at schemes that require a lump- sum investment. Participants are persuaded to part with several thousand pounds - often their redundancy money - in return for the right to recruit others to the scheme. There have been cases of redundant miners in the Eighties losing as much as pounds 40,000 in such schemes.

Sandra Paul of the DTI says: "Chain letters are specifically excluded under the Trading Schemes Act, because there is already existing legislation." The DTI's literature on money circulation schemes adds that chain letters are "probably illegal" under the Lotteries and Amusements Act (1976). This, Ms Paul explains, is the responsibility of the Home Office.

Lorraine Watson of the Home Office explains: "Chain letters are not specifically covered by the Lotteries and Amusements Act, but some of them are classed as unlawful lotteries. There's no legal definition of a lottery, other than that it's a game of chance where you pay to enter. The way that applies to a chain letter is that you pay the money when you pass the letter on, and the chance part of it is that you're hoping the next person will pass on the letter."

Lotteries must generally be run for a good cause, and have the price of participation clearly printed on the "ticket"; and the lottery organisation must be registered. Few, if any, chain letters fulfil these criteria. Mr Northcott says he would be concerned if letters like Ms Brooker's were to slip through the legislative net because of confusion about which piece of legislation applies.

In the case of investment-style schemes, the DTI can also use companies and insolvency law to wind up offending companies. Earlier this month, the DTI started High Court proceedings to close Illuminati, an Amsterdam- based money circulation scheme operating in the North of England.

Fran Atkins of the DTI says. "It was never conceived that the Companies Act and the insolvency legislation that has been used in the past would cease to be used. They could still be appropriate for a particular line of legal action, whereas the Trading Schemes Act could be appropriate for another"n

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