Relationships

What Happened When The MLMs Found Tinder

Commercial activity is prohibited on dating apps, but that doesn’t stop recruiters from posing as potential friends and lovers.

Amway; Monat; MaryKay; UNO; Ilka & Franz/Getty

When a Tinder date attempted to recruit Talia H. into the multilevel marketing company Nu Skin over coffee last summer, she was incredulous. “Is this seriously happening again?” the 33-year-old recalled. It was the third time a Tinder date pitched her an MLM scheme over the course of two years.

Multi-level marketing companies — businesses that require employees to sell products directly to their networks — only grow when members convince as many people as possible that they could earn more money selling leggings, essential oils, or diet supplements than at a “traditional” 9-5 job. (That dream almost never pans out.) MLMs like Herbalife, Mary Kay, Beach Body, Cutco Knives, Monat, LulaRoe, and hundreds more have utilized recruiting approaches like mining Facebook friend lists and Instagram followers, inviting them to vague events and get-togethers, and have touted themselves as a safe means of employment for those who were laid off or unemployed during the height of the lockdowns.

Now, however, some MLM members are casting an even wider net by scouring dating and other social networking apps. Sometimes they disguise recruiting events as dates, despite the fact that using these platforms for commercial purposes is explicitly prohibited by Tinder, Bumble, and Hinge’s terms of service. (According to a Bumble representative, mention of an MLM on the app, including Bumble BFF, can result in a lifetime ban. A Tinder spokesperson directed Bustle to the company’s community guidelines, which state accounts may be deleted if used solely for business purposes, and according to a spokesperson from Primerica, "Recruiting team members on dating websites is not a method we endorse. In fact, Primerica does not consider itself an MLM, rather we use an insurance agency model that authorizes our representatives to sell our products.") But dating and social networking apps are populated with exactly the kinds of people MLM recruiters are looking for.

“A classic MLM pitch is to engage you in a conversation, look for vulnerable areas, look for areas where you’re seeking, areas where you’re dissatisfied, and to link the MLM to solving that,” says Robert FitzPatrick, author of Ponzinomics: The Untold Story of Multi-Level Marketing. “You're lonely? This is community. You want to be happier? This is all about being around positive-thinking people. What is a dating app but people searching for connection?”

For the following seven people, dating apps were an avenue to meet people — both romantically and platonically — but the proliferation of MLM recruiters on the platforms made it even harder to trust burgeoning relationships, sometimes causing them to throw in the towel altogether. Here, these seven people discuss their run-ins with MLMs on dating and social networking apps.

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I joined Bumble BFF in the last few years of college. The first time I encountered someone who was trying to recruit me, it took me a while to notice. Everything was fine until she said, “Well if you want to hang out, I’m having a brunch at this restaurant and you can come by.” She sent me this digital flier, and at the bottom it said, “health and wellness advice.” I asked her about it, and she said, “If I could just give you a call after work I could tell you about it. It’s really complicated.”

I went through her Instagram posts, and just from looking at them, it looks totally normal until you read the captions and hashtags. I would see the same brand, Arbonne, pop up in her posts. I put two and two together: That’s what she means by brunch. She wants to recruit people. I never said anything back to her.

I tried to report it to Bumble, and the platform does give you an update on what their decision was. I was really upset when they told me that girl’s profile was still available. I know Bumble can probably read our messages. It’s not hard to see what she’s trying to do. For now, I’m going to take the app off my phone and focus on other things. — London Battle, 25, Long Beach, California

(According to a Bumble spokesperson, the following is Bumble’s criteria for evaluating accounts that have been reported: “As outlined within our guidelines, those who breach our guidelines and terms and conditions will receive a warning, unless our moderation team decides to block or restrict access without warning at their discretion. If a user ignores this warning, they risk losing their account.”)

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It was late 2017, and I thought Tinder would be a good app for me to start with since it’s the most popular one. One match and I agreed to go for a gym date since we both are members of this famous gym chain. They didn’t even talk to me during the gym session. After we finished, we went for lunch, and then they started to pitch me the idea of how the MLM helps people. They didn’t mention specifically what the MLM was, and I didn’t ask, but basically, they tried to recruit me to be their “partner” and told me to find more “partners” to earn more money. I told them that I would think about the offer but deep down I already knew I was going to reject it.

A few days later, I texted that I was not interested, and they tried to guilt-trip me, like I shouldn’t be living for wages when I can earn more money. I told them I’ve seen people close to me fall into MLM schemes that negatively affected their finances. Ironically, after I rejected the offer, the person asked me to pay them back for lunch. I did, and then I ghosted them. — Ash Shariffuddin, 29, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

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I joined Bumble BFF for the first time in 2019 after a suicide attempt. I met a lot of people unrelated to MLMs who were single mothers, who had disabilities, who had to take care of a family member full time, and the reason they were using Bumble BFF was similar to mine: They had some reason that made it difficult to meet up with people in person.

When these recruiters began to talk to me, they were extremely warm and compassionate. They were very interested in talking about me, my strengths, about how “we don’t judge you.” In retrospect, this is exactly what somebody who’s vulnerable wants to hear.

I asked a rep if she thought it was ethically OK to recruit on an app where people are looking for friendship and you're misleading them. She sent me a very LinkedIn-sounding audio message, saying, “I don't think it’s unethical because it's just another way of networking with people. Making friends is how most people recruit, and we don't see any problem with that. We don't have to offer anyone a position, and we’re not obligated to. We’re just looking for people who would be good for our company.” That was quite disturbing to me because they were offering validation to everyone.

There were a few people who I met on Bumble BFF, and one of them ended up joining Monat. She was a single mother. When we chatted, she talked about living at home, not going anywhere, and feeling alone. It was almost poetic later on when I checked in on her profile to see that she was part of that now. I get how they got her. — Abbey Strong, 20, Goshen, Connecticut

They were very interested in talking about me, my strengths, about how ‘we don’t judge you.’ In retrospect, this is exactly what somebody who’s vulnerable wants to hear.

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After one dinner and a group date in 2019, this guy I met on Tinder kept inviting me to more social hangs — not one-on-one dates, which was disappointing. First it was karaoke, then a house party, and then a futsal match.

It was at the futsal match that I heard someone start talking about Amway, and that alarm in your head goes off. Then, the guy invited me to a very popular date spot, and I thought, “Maybe this is a thing?” Right before we started eating, he pulled out some packs of nutritional fiber and started explaining about how good it is for you. When he told me he got it from Amway, I shut down. After dinner, he tried to invite me to a cooking class featuring some products, and I told him I was not interested. I never spoke to him again.

The second time I got recruited, in 2020, this guy invited me to a house party the week after our first date. The moment I walked in, I saw achievement award plaques from Amway on the wall. Later I messaged the guy, “I saw the Amway stuff. Did you just meet me to make me join?” He replied, “You don’t have to join if you don’t want to!” I said I wasn’t interested, blocked him, and never met him again.

I was recruited a third time last year. We got coffee and started talking about K-pop, and of course BTS was brought up. He went on to say, “One thing I admire about BTS is how clear their skin is,” and that’s when he went into his pitch for Nu Skin. I thought, “Is this seriously happening again?” I was glad that he was at least upfront about it so I could stop wasting my time.

A little part of me felt like, “I’m not worth dating.” I backtracked later to realize that’s not true, but it still sucked. I’m not here for your financial gain — I want somebody to love me and vice versa. — Talia H., 33, Japan

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I was recruited within my first few days on Bumble BFF during the spring of 2020. She seemed nice and said she had a mentor and found it really valuable. I was desperate for a full-time job after college and was ready to do pretty much anything that would help me get a good one. So I figured I’d have a call with her.

I was put off when the brief call with her felt like an interview but I did agree to a second meeting with her and her mentor. The weirdest part was when she told me that the mentors prefer to take couples. Blinded by optimism, I convinced my boyfriend to join the upcoming call with me, even though he was already skeptical.

My boyfriend and I signed on to a virtual meeting a few days later, where we were greeted by my Bumble BFF match and a couple. For an hour, the couple asked us more detailed questions about what we wanted from our careers. Eventually, the couple asked if we’ve heard of companies like Mary Kay. I finally realized what was happening — this group was part of Amway. I became very short with them after that to end the call quickly.

I really try not to villainize the people at the bottom of MLM organizations. I think they’re victims of the organization itself and those at the top of it. But hopefully, as people become more aware, fewer people will join them, and it will be easier to help those who are a part of MLMs leave. — Farhana, 24, Northern Virginia

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In 2018, I went through a really terrible breakup. I went on Tinder, matched with someone, and after three or four days of chatting, he insisted we meet near his place — about four hours from where I live — and I wasn’t comfortable with it. He told me his business was coffee, which I took to mean he had a coffee shop near his house, and he didn’t correct me. I eventually gave in.

I met him on a Saturday. He took me to a place called UNO, Unlimited Network of Opportunities. I was like, “Oh no.” He said, our main product is coffee, which helps you get thin. The event at UNO started with a presentation and lasted almost four hours. Afterward, the members running the event said, “We’re trying to prove it’s that easy — all you need to do is invite people.” Then they had an award ceremony for those who recruited the most.

I asked my date, “So if I say yes, would I be placed under your mentorship? What would you earn from me?” He said, “Don’t think about it that way.” I was disgusted and felt really sorry for the women he roped in. What if my career wasn’t going well, I was heartbroken, and here was this guy saying, “I’m going to help you with your life, I'm going to put it back together”? — Bianca, 27, Philippines

‘So if I say yes, would I be placed under your mentorship? What would you earn from me?’ He said, ‘Don’t think about it that way.’

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I had three total experiences of people trying to recruit me from Bumble BFF. The first one happened in 2018 when I first tried the app. They said upfront that they were with Primerica, and I told them I wasn’t interested. The second time, in the spring of 2021, it was a lot more sinister. I matched with someone who struck up a conversation with me, asking about my interests, what I was up to for the weekend. We went back and forth for a day or two, and the conversation stopped. About a week goes by, and I receive a message from them asking me, out of the blue, what I do for work. I answered and asked them the same. That’s when they started to slide into a very vague description of their job. They wouldn’t say exactly what they did, exactly who they worked for, but they used a lot of MLM buzzwords like, “I make my own hours” and “I’m my own boss.” They wanted me to meet up with them and their manager so we could discuss a business opportunity. At that point, I knew for certain it was an MLM pitch, even though they hadn’t mentioned it explicitly. I did some googling, and it looks like that strategy is commonly used by Amway. That’s where I ended the conversation.

A week later after this incident, a nearly identical one happened. I deleted Bumble BFF and haven’t gone back to it since. I’m not going to waste any more time thinking I’m making a friend, and then it’s this. Afterward, you feel betrayed and used, dirty. I’d prefer to be ghosted than tricked into joining an MLM. — Adam Sneath, 27, Detroit

Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on Jan. 15. to include a statement from Primerica.