On Westminster Bridge in Central London, Hanif Mohammed takes a long drag of a cigarette and looks out over the city’s skyline. He’s of average height with short, black and gray hair and wears a worn brown leather jacket as he’s about to start his third consecutive night driving for Uber — one of his three part-time jobs, which also include driving for Deliveroo and working as a nightclub bouncer. Like many young, working-class Pakistani men living in the U.K., the 31-year-old doesn’t spend his nights partying, but rather taking the city’s affluent to and from their homes in trendy East End neighborhoods to upscale clubs in the nearby Financial District.
He knows that when he returns back to his parent’s house in the early morning hours, he’ll lay his head down on the same small bed he slept on as a teenager, in a bedroom that has changed little since the early aughts. Mohammed often thinks about how this wasn’t the way things were supposed to turn out. A few years ago, when he was a broke college student, half-heartedly working toward a computer science degree while moonlighting as a cashier at a convenience store, he had been promised the dream — a penthouse, a Lamborghini, exotic beach vacations, the works.
“I was miserable,” he says, taking another cigarette from a worn box of Marlboro Lights. “I wasn’t earning anything, after I gave half to my family. Once you pay for things like gas and car insurance, you’ve got maybe 30 pounds to yourself for the rest of the month.”
In late 2015, he received a call from a friend he hadn’t spoken to in years. “[They] told me about this opportunity, one where I could make more money in a week than I had in a month. When I got that call, I’d just found enough change to buy a can of Coke and a chocolate bar from the shop,” Mohammed says. The friend told him he had quit his day job to pursue the opportunity full-time, and if Mohammed joined him, they could both be successful entrepreneurs who owned their own businesses. Mohammed was told that he’d be working for a respected international corporation, which had already changed the lives of tens of thousands of people: The American Communications Network, or ACN.
On its website, ACN describes itself as an “opportunity to own a home-based business without the large investment or risk most entrepreneurs have to make.” By becoming an “Independent Business Owner” with ACN, you can make money by offering services people are already spending money on — namely, cable, Wi-Fi and utilities. How exactly is unclear, though, as there’s little publicly available information on how ACN works, or what being a franchisee actually entails. (The website Small Business Chronicle details that ACN distributes its services through its “customer representatives,” i.e., people who try to sell ACN bundles via telemarketing.)
What ACN’s website does list in more detail is its “success stories,” profiles of people who ACN claims have made fortunes and built new lives for themselves, all of which are contained within the site’s main section, entitled “Opportunity.” Here, there are countless stories of people who entered the company from working-class backgrounds, often with little money, only to have their lives completely transformed by ACN — or so they say.
According to Mohammed, the word “opportunity” was used repeatedly on that initial phone call. “[My friend] kept repeating it,” he remembers. “If I didn’t take this ‘opportunity’ now, I’d regret it for the rest of my life. I just kept thinking to myself, My life is shit at the moment, this could be the way out.”
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ACN was founded in 1993 by American entrepreneurs Robert Stevanovski, Greg Provenzano, Tony Cupisz and his twin brother Mike. Originally based in Michigan, the company mainly “resold” gas and electricity plans through long-distance telemarketing, taking a commission on every sale. As ACN expanded, both across the U.S. and later in Europe and Southeast Asia, the company started selling more services, ranging from landline telephones, cell-phone plans, internet packages and satellite TV. ACN also exported its direct selling structure. This is known as “network marketing,” in which thousands of people become independent business owners and resell services to consumers via ACN, taking commissions on their sales, as well as the number of people they recruit to do the same thing.
What really put ACN on the map, however, was its connection to Donald Trump. Between 2006 and 2015, ACN developed a relationship with him via The Apprentice; in addition, Trump appeared in ACN promotional videos and at training events across the U.S. Yet when he announced he was running for president in 2015, he removed all associations with ACN from his website, and in interviews, he claimed he didn’t know about the company, its founders or its business practices.
If ACN’s business model sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve heard of similar multi-level marketing companies (MLMs), such as Herbalife, Amway and Avon. They were the focus of the first season of the hugely successful podcast The Dream, which examined the growth of MLMs in the context of Reagan-era America. Throughout, journalist Jane Marie shows how various MLMs — including Amway and Herbalife — were able to sell dreams of financial freedom and stability to communities where there was little financial opportunity. One such community is Marie’s hometown, Owosso, Michigan, described in the podcast as “a stretch of no-man’s land, where, thanks to a deflated auto industry, 25 percent of the population currently lives below the poverty line.” Now, Marie says, Owosso is a “hotbed” of people “selling each other consumer goods” like vitamins, essential oils and makeup kits.
As the series goes on, she shows how the power of MLMs has roots at the very top of American politics. The most glaring example: Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is the daughter of Richard DeVos, the founder of Amway, among the largest MLMs in the U.S. today.
MLMs differ from traditional businesses because they require their sellers — who, in many cases, work as individual franchisees required to fund their own travel, office expenses and sometimes, even marketing materials — to sell directly to customers, rather than through a store or online retailer. They also must recruit new people into the business. In exchange for each new recruit, sellers can make extra cash on top of whatever they sell on behalf of the company. In some cases, sellers can make more money by recruiting new people than selling the product or service itself.
According to the Small Business Chronicle, ACN requires individuals to “sign up,” either as a customer representative for $99, or as a team trainer for $499. As a customer representative, you focus solely on earning money by selling telecommunications products. The opportunities to advance are slower and largely based on sales. As a team trainer, however, the odds are much better to be promoted to Regional Vice President and Senior Vice President. Each level, per the Small Business Chronicle, requires the acquisition and maintenance of a specific number of customers. To achieve the level of Executive Team Trainer, for example, you must have 20 customers and recruit a minimum of three Team Trainer agents who themselves maintain a roster of six to eight customers, depending on the types of products they purchase. (With each new Team Trainer, you can earn an additional 6 percent of your monthly sales.)
Because of this kind of structure, some MLMs, like Herbalife, have been referred to as “pyramid schemes,” in which high upfront costs are required to participate. Of course, in both the U.S. and U.K., pyramid schemes are technically illegal. That’s why regulators like the U.K.’s Direct Selling Association (DSA) have published guidelines on what differentiates a “pyramid scheme” from a “direct-selling” operation. “Direct selling is a mainstream retail channel, where products and services are sold directly to consumers outside of a fixed retail environment. Many brands sell products this way, either as one of multiple routes to market, or as their sole route to market,” a spokesperson for the DSA tells me. “In direct selling, earnings come from sales of goods to consumers by salespeople and their recruits; [whereas] in pyramid schemes, a person pays another person or company for the right to receive payment from the recruitment of another person.”
The spokesperson adds that the DSA has another set of guidelines for companies that partake in direct selling in order to retain their membership, including mandatory requirements that they sell products and services, and have a compensation scheme for those who cannot make back their initial investment. (FWIW: The ACN is a member of the DSA.) The DSA also claims that its companies are regulated effectively and operate within the boundaries of the law. As such, ACN rejects all claims that it’s a pyramid scheme, and refutes the countless videos and stories from the AntiMLM subreddit and blog posts that question its legitimacy as a traditional business.
That doesn’t mean, though, that exploitation still can’t occur. “A lot of MLMs may have to disclose, in advertising or in statements, an income disclosure statement — something that basically says that not everyone will make a lot of money participating in the scheme,” explains Stacie Bosley, an associate professor in economics at Hamline University in Minnesota whose research focuses extensively on direct selling and pyramid schemes. “But often that’s in the small print, or not there at all. So people can be misled with these big claims and promises of wealth. And when it doesn’t go the way they expected, they find that the company isn’t liable for their losses, or required to pay back the initial starter investment.”
As such, Bosley says, there should be less emphasis on whether or not MLMs operate within the law, because “it’s not fair to simply say that they’re ‘legal,’ when the reality is that they haven’t been found to be illegal. It’s extraordinarily difficult to prove that MLMs are operating in ways that are misleading and sometimes unethical. It requires a lot of resources, time and legal expenses. And for many people who have lost out in [direct selling], the option to pursue legal action isn’t even there. They just have to accept their losses — not just financial, but also in terms of their confidence and mental health, and sometimes even with relationships with friends and family, too.”
Earlier this year, a lawsuit was filed against Trump and three of his children (Ivanka, Eric and Donald Jr.) by four former ACN retailers who claim that the family had used The Celebrity Apprentice to entice wannabe entrepreneurs to invest in ACN. On the show, the suit claims, the Trumps falsely claimed that ACN’s technologies would “revolutionize the way we communicate,” presenting investing in the company as a profitable opportunity. Trump’s endorsement was shown at ACN meetings around the world, and the plaintiffs argue that his stature made the company and its products seem more successful than they actually were.
The suit, which is seeking class-action status, alleges that the Trumps secretly received millions of dollars from ACN in exchange for promoting the company via The Apprentice — all while knowing that investors wouldn’t make any of the money back. It goes on to claim that Trump had misled potentially “tens of thousands” of Americans into signing up for ACN and paying a $499 registration fee. (I reached out to ACN for comment, but never received a response back; a lawyer for the Trump Organization did respond to the New York Times, however, calling the allegations “meritless” and “motivated by politics.”)
Mohammed found out about the lawsuit via a WhatsApp group of British South Asian men (most, like him, Pakistani Muslims) who were formerly a part of the company and where they’d share their largely negative experiences. For Mohammed, discovering the lawsuit was the first time he’d felt anything other than shame and regret about his association with ACN. “It was the first time I realized, properly, that I wasn’t on my own,” he tells me. “[The lawsuit] replayed my experiences back to me.” He and others in the group also felt like it was the first meaningful step to maybe receiving a little justice.
A cursory look at ACN’s YouTube channel shows how men like Mohammed — basically, immigrants from low-income, working-class backgrounds — can be quickly elevated to positions like Regional Vice President and Senior Vice President. In a video posted last year by ACN’s European Network, the company’s co-founder Greg Provenzano describes a newly promoted RVP Omar El Amrani as follows:
“Before joining ACN, this gentleman worked very long hours for a large retail chain. He was looking for a new opportunity to make money while growing personally and professionally. His life has changed by working alongside great leaders in achieving financial freedom with his partners in London. His next dream is to become a senior vice president and join the ‘circle of champions’ [an ‘elite’ group of presidents in ACN] and help others achieve their dreams.”
Next, El Amrani, to the sound of upbeat rock music, takes the stage to tell his story about how the ACN “opportunity” helped him go from “financial insecurity” to “wealth and freedom.” Almost every anecdote from his life story is met with thunderous applause from other ACN delegates.
Dozens of videos uploaded by ACN YouTube accounts espouse similar rags-to-riches stories. Often, they feature men from ethnic minority backgrounds, the vast majority of which aren’t high school or college educated, who recall going from working shitty service jobs to attaining president positions at ACN within a little over a year.
What’s telling, however, is the lack of information about how this happens. There’s little detail about the best kinds of services and products to sell or how they work. Instead, you’re more likely to see a video about “mindset training” or motivational speeches on how “passion” can lead to business success.
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Mohammed signed up for ACN the first meeting he went to, which took place in a budget-hotel conference room in the suburbs of West London in 2015. The room had hosted a children’s birthday party a few hours before, and there were still balloons and loose ribbons on the floor. On cheap plastic tables, tea and coffee were served, along with discount grocery store cookies.
“It was filled with people who were like me,” he says, describing a group of men in their 20s and 30s, usually in college or just graduated, almost all Pakistani or Bangladeshi. What united them, Mohammed says, is that “they wanted to make money.” When I ask Mohammed about the person who led the workshop, he tells me he was a guy who “looked like he worked in a hedge fund,” dressed in a slick blue suit with a bright pink tie. “He showed us this presentation on his life at ACN. I was looking at the life I wanted — cars, [vacations], designer watches. He even had a picture of himself in a box at Wembley Stadium watching a football match.”
The presentation, Mohammed remembers, didn’t offer much in the way of what ACN was or how the company worked. He didn’t know if there was a central office, how much time he’d have to spend on the phone or whether there were sales targets. In fact, Mohammed says, he struggled to remember what ACN was actually selling: “The guy mentioned that the company sold high-end electronics and services, things like broadband packages and phone packages.”
Mostly, the man in the pink tie put an emphasis on recruiting other people into ACN. “He had all this technical language on how to do it — how to make a ‘warm’ list of people based off people we already knew. He said something like, ‘You don’t have to be a trained salesperson, you already have a contacts book of friends and family — people who deserve the opportunity to be financially free.’”
It was this last part that continued to be emphasized: “They always mentioned how the work environment hates people who are financially free because they don’t want them to be successful. But ACN was different, because it believed in the value of every individual — that every individual deserves to be financially free.”
Because most studies around MLMs have tended to focus on its impact on women, Bosley says there’s surprisingly little information about direct selling and men, or why men get involved in direct selling to begin with. Part of that, is due to the fact that “men don’t often think about all avenues to establishing an income stream,” Bosley explains. “Often, women will be open to selling makeup, skincare and domestic products — things that men are going to be more hesitant about. This means that companies like ACN have to market themselves to men in ways that appeal to them. That’s why they emphasize the idea of owning your own business, of being able to be a provider for your family, to have a respectful career. They’re all things that appeal to young men.” At the same time, she adds, “it means that if they lose money, they’re less likely to tell anyone about it, or to tell people publicly that their business venture failed.”
“There’s a very specific way they bring people in,” says 26-year-old Adnan Ramzan, a law student who lives just outside of London, and who joined ACN for about a month in early 2015. “When you join, you’re told not to explain what it is on Facebook or social media, but to bring people you know to meetings or to host a ‘PBR’ [Private Business Reception] where you directly recruit people into ACN using a presentation that had already been made by someone higher up in the company.”
Ramzan reluctantly paid the entrance fee, which then was around $460, at the recommendation of a friend who had brought him to the meeting (and according to Ramzan, who would receive at least a 7-percent commission in return for Ramzan’s presence). A big part of his decision to join was his trusted friend — someone he’d known for years and was close with. “I felt that I could trust his judgement,” Ramzan recalls. “When you think about it, that’s actually how the recruitment part works. It’s based on existing relationships people have with each other, where the trust is already there — you don’t have to earn it.”
Neither Ramzan nor Mohammed were directly employed by ACN. They were considered to be “sole traders” by the company, independent distributors of ACN products and services. And so, they were given no resources, no tools and no internal software or ACN email addresses. In fact, there was no formal documentation to show that they were affiliated with the company. The only thing both men had to link them to the company were the cellphone numbers of their managers.
“My manager would call me up all the time, maybe 10 to 15 times a day,” Ramzan says. “He’d call me up about going to meetings, or to make sure that I was bringing more people to those meetings. He made it out like every conversation I had at [university] should be a potential recruit, and that if I wasn’t bringing more people into ACN, I was bringing his team down.”
The calls only further solidified Ramzan’s skepticism. “I’d been in the company for two weeks, and I hadn’t heard anything about what we were actually trying to sell. I didn’t know anything about the services we were supposed to be providing people, or what technology we were promoting. Even when I’d try to get more people to join, the first question they’d ask is, ‘What do you do?’ I couldn’t provide them with any kind of answer.” The meetings Ramzan attended were similar to Mohammed’s, mainly filled with working-class ethnic minorities, often of Muslim background, who were there because of a family member or a friend. Almost none of them had ever heard of ACN before, and only knew it was an “opportunity” to make extra money, and maybe even quit their day job.
In reality, though, both Mohammed and Ramzan found that they were losing money, not raking it in. “In the first months of ACN, I must have spent $350 to $500 just on travel,” says Mohammed. “Train tickets to go to meetings and host seminars, gas for the car, food, hotels sometimes. All of that would be coming out of my pocket because everyone was considered to be self-employed. I had to borrow some of that money from my cousin, who had already warned me that this was a scam.”
“You’re told early on that you’re going to lose a bit of money when you start,” Ramzan adds. “But they always emphasize the same point — that you have to put in the money to start with if you’re going to succeed in the company. Like, it doesn’t matter if you have to put in a lot at the beginning, because when you succeed, you’ll make all that back — and more.”
“I felt bad that I was contacting people that me and my family knew in bad faith,” Ramzan continues. “I was talking to them with the intention of selling them this company that even I didn’t believe in. I had a lot of doubts about it, so how could I tell them that the opportunity was legitimate, and that they should invest hundreds of pounds into it?”
It didn’t help that his manager responded to any questions or critique of the company with either blatant disregard or claims that he was a “hater” who “didn’t want to put in the work to be successful.” “There was a metaphor my manager used when he addressed people who called ACN a scam,” Ramzan says. “He referred to people who believed in ACN as ‘red apples’ because they were the best, and people who didn’t believe in the value of the company as ‘green apples.’ The green apples, he said, were people who wanted to work for someone else or who [weren’t] capable of working for themselves to be successful.”
In the end, Ramzan chooses to look at the $250 he lost on ACN as a valuable life lesson: “I learned that there’s no such thing as easy money.” Unfortunately, Mohammed’s three-month stint at ACN came with a steeper cost. “I borrowed hundreds of pounds from my cousin in the months I was doing ACN,” he says. “I’d argue with him for hours about how good the venture was, like how you have to spend money to make money, and that he would see it come back. I was basically begging him.”
The money, Mohammed told his cousin, was necessary so he could keep recruiting people into his network. He needed a good suit and a high-end haircut. “Presentation matters — that’s what all the team leaders and all the managers say,” Mohammed explains. “They do workshops all about how to present yourself to get more sales and what things help you make a sale. And you do end up getting sucked in. You see these managers and senior vice presidents on social media, with flashy cars and big houses, and you think to yourself that you could have that too — that maybe you do need to look and act like them to achieve their success.” Mohammed estimates that he owed his cousin close to $3,500 by the time he left ACN, a debt he’s still paying off through his earnings as an Uber driver.
Looking back, Mohammed says, “I wanted to prove that I could be successful and independent. In my family, I was always considered to be someone who wasn’t that intelligent, who wouldn’t make anything of himself. I wanted to show that I could make money. That I could succeed in business. I wanted to make my family proud.” Those expectations, Mohammed explains, meant that terminating his agreement with ACN left him feeling like a failure. “When I ended up in that debt, my cousin felt that I’d wasted his money on something he believed I fell for because I wasn’t as smart as him. I do resent that he thinks like that. Because you have to be in that environment and also be in a situation like I was, to really understand why ACN looks so appealing.”
“Because Muslim communities tend to be so tightly networked, they’re the perfect breeding ground for MLMs,” says Abdul Majid, a Muslim activist in Birmingham who was among the first people to warn other Muslims about the potential for MLMs to prey on them. “I’d try to show how they weren’t long-term viable. Because the most commission you’d ever get came from recruiting people, and your earnings would depend on others getting recruited. Eventually, you’re going to run out of people.”
“I had friends who were part of different MLMs, and they were told to recruit people during Friday prayers, or whenever they were at a religious event,” Majid continues. “Some people who were part of MLMs were even using Islamic language to bring people in. Terms like inshallah and salaam, which are powerful because it gave the impression to other Muslims that these people were being sincere about their intentions, like our religion commands us. In turn, that added legitimacy to the businesses they were trying to promote.”
It’s why, Majid says, Muslim imams like Sheikh Haitham al-Haddad — one of the U.K.’s most well-regarded advisors on Islamic law — made a public announcement in 2015 warning Muslims to stay away from joining ACN and other MLM-based businesses. To al-Haddad, who says he received hundreds of inquiries from Muslims about ACN, the problem with MLMs is that “people are selling products where the price isn’t proportional to the value. You pay the money, join the scheme and there is a large level of uncertainty that you will make money. We should be [concerned] of this ‘fashionable’ way of making money.”
Maybe because of this backlash within the community, Majid believes ACN has lost a lot of its luster, especially in comparison to other money-making schemes that have emerged in the past couple of years. “I’ve seen more Muslims looking at things like cryptocurrency and currency trading — things you can do online and learn from the internet,” he says. “While there’s always going to be people who fall for things like ACN, it’s only a matter of time before the next venture finds its way into the community.”
Mohammed certainly has given up on ACN. And while he has no plans to take the company to court himself, he is keeping an eye on the outcome of the U.S.-based lawsuit in the hope that at least some people receive compensation, and it prevents others like him from getting sucked into similar schemes. “Young British Muslims and ethnic minorities from poor backgrounds, we’re the most disadvantaged people in the country. So we’re also the most likely to get taken advantage of,” he says. “Maybe this will change things. Maybe that’s what the real opportunity is.”