Money for Nothing

Gina DeJoy used to take people at their word. At her Maine antiques store, customers could ask for things to be put aside, on hold, no deposit necessary. These days, DeJoy would like to be paid in full first, thank you very much. After what she’s been through, it’s hard to blame her.

Three years ago, DeJoy, 43, told an acquaintance that she was in a tough spot financially. Every six weeks she was flying to Virginia — missing work each time — to get her mother through chemotherapy. Her credit cards were maxed out, but she couldn’t bear to let her mother suffer alone. DeJoy’s friend said she had a solution.

There was a local group set up to help women just like Gina. Called A Woman’s Project, it was a “gifting circle” that worked like this: Give $5,000 to another woman in need, and in a short time your gift would come back to you eightfold — $40,000.

How could money multiply so magically? Simple: by more women being inducted into the group. The groups, usually made up of 15 women, are known as “circles” but are best understood as pyramids: eight women on the bottom layer, four above that, two above them, and one at the top. The woman with the most seniority (the one at the peak of the pyramid) collects $40,000 when the bottom level is filled — that is, when each of the eight newest initiates give her a $5,000 “gift.” After the top woman collects, she leaves the group, which splits in two. At this point, all remaining members move up a level, and both groups start trolling for eight new bottom-level members.

A Woman’s Project seemed heaven-sent to DeJoy. At her first meeting — a potluck lunch held at a local hairdresser’s house — she felt as if she’d been invited to join a secret sorority. Among the 40 or so attendees, there were familiar faces, including her bank tellers and grocery-store cashier, but no one used last names, making the group feel both intimate and mysterious. The idea was that everyone had gathered for a charitable purpose — to raise money for a good cause. Many of the women had brought donations for a local food bank, and the pile of canned goods sat in the middle of the crowded living room, a symbol of A Woman’s Project’s good intentions.

“We’re women who help women,” gushed one of the promoters, an inspirational speaker who said she had participated in a successful group in Texas. “That’s what it’s all about.” Then came the pitch: The woman you help could be you. Eight of the attendees told stories about receiving $40,000. They encouraged newcomers to mortgage their homes to finance the initial gift. They mentioned money-back guarantees.

Of course, the two parts of the hook — giving to charity and making a quick buck for yourself — have nothing to do with each other. But for DeJoy, as for many other women, those two parts merged into a persuasive and tantalizing fantasy.

DeJoy talked it over with her husband and borrowed $5,000 from a bank. Then she wrapped the cash up like a present. At an afternoon tea attended by 18 Woman’s Project participants and potentials, she handed the package to her host, a woman she’d never met. Though DeJoy was “scared to death,” the others burst into applause. The next day she headed to Virginia to take care of her mother. Soon, she thought, the gifting-circle money would allow her to hire a private nurse.

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