- The Washington Times - Friday, August 4, 2000

MADISON, Wis. An illegal pyramid scheme with religious undertones is sweeping across Wisconsin, authorities warn.

"I've never seen anything like it," said Judy Cardin, who has directed fraud investigations for years as a consumer-protection official with the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

Miss Cardin said the Federal Trade Commission had alerted states to the so-called "gifting" schemes.

"We hadn't heard a whole lot about it in Wisconsin until this hit, and it's just unbelievable," she said Wednesday. "It's like spontaneous combustion. We're just hearing from county after county."

People started calling three weeks ago, said Bill Oemichen, administrator of the agency's Division of Trade and Consumer Protection.

Pyramid promoters tell people they ultimately can reap $16,000 in cash if they give a gift of $2,000 and recruit others to do the same, Mr. Oemichen explained. Promotional materials for the scheme claim that the most successful recruiters could make as much as $48,000.

Mike King, police chief in Prairie du Chien, said he was troubled by the religious aspect of the scam going on in his community.

"The scary thing about this one right now is a lot of it is being advertised on quasi-religious themes," Chief King said. "Like it's a Christian 'gifting' club. The idea is to bring people closer to Christianity."

People are contacted primarily by telephone, although Chief King said the Internet has been used to distribute information.

Mr. Oemichen said that members of a church in northern Wisconsin had called to say that their minister was signing up members.

In materials distributed by recruiters, Mr. Oemichen said, the claim is made that the club was legal because the money was being given as a gift. Not true, he said.

"We can't put it any clearer: This is an illegal pyramid scheme," Mr. Oemichen said.

• Distributed by Scripps Howard.

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