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A pyramid scheme billed as "women helping women" was shut down last week when police raided a Hamilton-area home and charged a dozen businesswomen with running an illegal lottery.

Though pyramid schemes -- where people put in anywhere from $50 to $3,000 and then bring in other "investors" until the first "investors" claim their cut -- are fairly common, this racket was exclusively targeting women, said Detective Sgt. Bryan Barker of the Hamilton-Wentworth Regional Police Vice Squad.

Pyramid organizers said it "was a way to give women an opportunity to get ahead and make money," he said. In this high-end gamble, women were told that for an initial investment of about $3,000, they could take out $24,000 within a few months if they could bring in another 14 women.

The pyramid was based on 15 people, eight on the bottom, then four on the next rung, two on the next tier and finally, the so-called queen on the top. Once the 15 investors are in, the cell splits into two and the queen gets $24,000, Barker explained.

While promoters often find willing accomplices in the early stages of a pyramid, "near the end they get desperate and start calling people they haven't seen in years and encouraging (poorer) recruits to take advances on their Visa cards or take out mortgages" to come up with the investment money, he said.

In the end, it's that kind of pressure on friends and family members that does them in, he said, because while those in first can make money, those coming in at the end invariably lose their investment. Those who lost money, he added, were not charged in the raid.

During the eight-week investigation, Barker said, "we were taking one or two calls a day from people wanting to save their friends from losing money."

When police raided the Burlington town house on Thursday, they arrested 12 of the women organizers who were bank executives, investment and insurance brokers, and independent business owners. The women came from the Hamilton area, including Burlington, Ancaster, Oakville, Stoney Creek and Woodbridge, Barker said.

The organizers would sell the scheme as "an investment club and say you can make a lot of money, tax-free, in a short period of time," said Detective Sgt. Greg Hamilton. "They tell you it's legal and approved by police."

The women face charges of running an illegal lottery, carrying a maximum penalty of two years in prison.

However, Hamilton explained, if they have no other criminal record, they will likely only get a fine of $60 to $600, "and the embarrassment of having their names in the papers."

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