I never would’ve thought taking down a multi-level marketing ploy would be on the agenda for my very first week of college!

On the first Friday of Fall 2022 classes, I went to the For-Profit Opportunities Fair hosted by Beyond Barnard, Barnard’s career center. When I was there, I stopped by a booth held by a company named Primerica. Their representative was a super friendly, bubbly woman who seemed to truly enjoy her job. She said Primerica was a company geared toward helping middle-income families learn how to manage their money. She told me how most insurance companies aren’t transparent to their clients and lie to them about interest rates. Primerica’s aim is to help ordinary people gain financial literacy and see past what regular insurance companies are telling them. She mentioned the prospect of flexible part-time work hours, which seemed perfect for a full-time college student. 

I thought to myself: Wow, this company seems super cool! I would get to truly help people and change lives. Her words seemed slightly bombastic and vapid, but I accounted for that with my lack of concrete financial knowledge. 

I gave the representative my résumé, and she told me she’d call me in a few days to schedule a time to do an interview. That was quick, I thought. She took one glance at my résumé and agreed to interview me on the spot. I thought about all the other people who must have come to that booth too. They must have also gotten interviews. How many would that have been? I estimated it to be at least 50 other students. 

The promise of an interview was exciting, but a part of me knew it felt too good to be true. I assumed the representative was just lying to me or letting me down easy—she would probably never follow-up.

A friend of mine, also a first-year, walked up to the booth, heard the same pitch, and was offered an interview. I was happy for her, but still suspicious—is this company really giving out interviews to everybody who drops off a résumé? 

I later left the fair and told my parents about the encounter. They said they thought it seemed legitimate. Primerica is on the stock exchange, so they must be an actual insurance company. Above all else, I think they were just happy that I got a real job interview. 

A day or two later, the same representative called my friend and I. I didn’t have my phone on me, so it went straight to voicemail. My friend answered the call, though, and told me the representative wanted us to go to the downtown office from 7:30 to 8:30 pm the upcoming Tuesday night for a “workshop.” Workshop? Why call an interview a workshop?

I kept thinking about how many people would be there. We got “interviews,” so it was reasonable to assume everyone else who went to the booth had the same outcome. How about career fairs at other schools? Or LinkedIn? There could be hundreds of people at this workshop, for all I knew. It felt off. 

Later that day, I looked up Primerica online. The first thing that showed up on the “People also ask” section of Google was, “Is Primerica a legitimate company?” The response that followed was, “Yes, Primerica is a trustworthy company.” This answer was taken directly from the company’s website. I scrolled down and found two additional testimonials: “No, Primerica is not an MLM.” and “No, Primerica is not a pyramid scheme.” Understanding the basic concept of rhetorical ethos, I knew I couldn’t trust this. I decided to check out their Wikipedia page. Sure enough, it was listed as a multi-level marketing company (and even hosts lavish conventions). 

A Primerica convention 

I told my friend about my findings. Although we understood what Primerica’s motives were and didn’t plan on attending the workshop, we were concerned about the other students who went to the booth at the career fair. We agreed to go to the Beyond Barnard office to call attention to the fact that there was an MLM recruiting students on campus. We knew we wanted to maintain respect—we weren’t going to walk into the office with an air of superiority and say, “Hey, there was a pyramid scheme at your career fair, by the way.” Instead, we were going to phrase it like a question: “Can you tell us how you think we should respond to this opportunity we were offered?” Then, we would weave in the facts of the matter. 

We asked the secretary at Beyond Barnard who to talk to about a career fair question and were provided the emails of the career fair managers. A copy of my original email is provided below: 

A screenshot of the email I sent to the Beyond Barnard office

The representative from Beyond Barnard responded quickly and asked if I could give her a call. I called her later that day and explained the entire situation in as much detail as I could remember. She told me that it sounded a little off, but that since Primerica has a Handshake profile, it means they’ve been vetted and are a legitimate company. (For reference, Handshake is the collegiate job recruitment platform that Barnard students use.) She also mentioned that a workshop could always mean a networking event instead of a job offer. Ultimately, she told me to exercise caution in my career search and that I did not have to go to the workshop unless I really wanted to. I could always call Primerica back and ask what the workshop entails. 

I thanked her for her time and hung up, disappointed and unrelieved. That’s it? I knew it was an MLM. I understood that Barnard trusts Handshake’s vetting process and that the Beyond Barnard representative did her job properly, but I knew that the entire modus operandi of MLMs is their ability to slip through the cracks. I had to do something

I remembered that I still had the Primerica representative’s number from when she left me a voicemail message. What else to do but call her and understand what was really going on? I dialed the number and the representative picked up after the first ring. 

For many reasons, I did not record the conversation. Thus, the following interaction is a reconstruction based on my own memory soon after the conversation took place. Much of it is more or less verbatim, but the rest should be taken as paraphrasing. Please also keep in mind that I maintained a polite and cordial tone and that I have no personal grievance against the representative on the phone. I had no intention of going to the workshop on Tuesday, nor did I call just to “expose” the company. I simply wanted to confirm my suspicions and get to know the company better, keeping the interests of the college and my peers in mind. Below is a transcript of our conversation: 

Me: Hi! This is [my name] from the Barnard career fair. I’m sorry I didn’t get your message earlier but I’m glad we got ahold of each other at the same time. 

Primerica: Don’t worry about it! Would you be able to come to our downtown location on Tuesday at 7 pm? 

Me: I’d like to think more about it before I decide to come. Can you tell me what exactly my position would entail? 

Primerica: Well, I can’t tell you that because that’s what the 30-minute meeting would be for. Let me find your résumé real quick. 

Me: You can’t give me a few sentences on what exactly I would do at the company? 

Primerica: No. That’s what the meeting is for. 

Me: What would I do at the meeting? 

Primerica: Well, we give slides on who we are as a company and what we do. Then we’ll see if you’re qualified and do the interview, and you can get licensed. 

Me: You have my résumé with you, right? Can you see if I’m qualified based on my résumé? 

Primerica: No—what are you interested in? 

Me: Like, what do I want to do at the company? 

Primerica: Yes. You said you were majoring in psychology? 

Me: Yes—I want to major in psychology but I also have experience with data and customer service. 

Primerica: And what do you want to do with that? 

Me: As a career?

Primerica: Yes. 

Me: Well, I’m not sure yet. That’s why I went to the career fair. I want to keep my options open. 

Primerica: See, we have written down that you want to keep your options open. 

Me: Yes. So that’s why I’m interested in understanding what my role would be in the company before I come down on Tuesday. 

Primerica: Well, what I don’t understand is why you didn’t ask me that when I was at the career fair. 

Me: I wasn’t completely sure about what the company was yet, so that’s why I’m asking now before I decide if I want to come down to your office. 

Primerica: But that’s what the meeting is for. 

Me: Yes, but I want to understand what the company does before I come down, because it’s a 45-minute commute. 

Primerica: If you’re not interested that’s okay, but I have somebody waiting outside my office right now for an interview. 

Me: Okay, well thank you, and have a good rest of your day. 

Primerica: You too! 

How does Primerica assume somebody would apply for a job without even knowing what they’re applying for? Why was the Primerica representative so nice at the career fair, but strangely aggressive on the phone? It really got me shaken up. 

After I ended our call, I called back the Beyond Barnard office. I told them what happened, and they agreed that it was very unprofessional. The representative told me she would escalate the process to the dean of Beyond Barnard. 

I suppose my phone call had an impact, since the next day the Beyond Barnard office sent out a mass email through Handshake regarding Primerica. I am still hopeful that my efforts will prevent many Barnard students from falling into the Primerica trap, but am wary about students at other institutions. This mass email states that Primerica was removed from Handshake, but further inspection proved that they still remain on the website. I am unsure if only one Primerica location was removed, or if they were all removed and still found their way back.

Screenshot of the mass email Beyond Barnard sent out through Handshake asking students to reject offers from Primerica 
Screenshot of the Handshake page showing 213 Primerica results 

After all this, I called my dad to tell him about what happened. I didn’t understand why Primerica was allowed to come to the career fair in the first place. How can an Ivy League university let a pyramid scheme recruit their students? 

My dad stated that it’s not solely the University’s fault, it’s Handshake’s. The vetting process in Handshake is extremely lenient. For his own company, he mentioned he didn’t have to enter too much information into the system and got accepted in as little as ten minutes. I recommend checking out this Handshake article to see how they “vet” employers. However, even if Handshake had stricter validation procedures, I’m sure MLMs would still be able to alter their wording and find a roundabout way to enter the system. 

My dad also mentioned that Barnard isn’t meant to be on the defensive when inviting employers to career fairs. They’re on the offensive: their goal is to invite as many employers as possible, not keep them out. When a company seems eager to recruit, Barnard is equally as eager to host them. Thus, blatantly fraudulent companies are the exception, not the rule. Besides, MLMs tend to target college career fairs

Where do we go from here? Handshake, an otherwise trustworthy job recruitment platform, let in a pyramid scheme. Not only that, but an Ivy League university invited a pyramid scheme to its career fair. But it’s hard to place the blame. And is that productive, really? Why should we direct our anger toward the victims rather than the root of the problem? These MLM companies are talented at slipping through the cracks and targeting weak spots. Still—our institutions must develop protocols so that they know how to spot a scam. Unfortunately, one layer of vetting will never be enough. 

After additional research, I discovered that Forbes included Primerica as one of “America’s 50 Most Trustworthy Financial Companies” in 2015. Their list was compiled by “Aggressive Accounting and Governance Risk” scores, which include “high-risk events, revenue and expense recognition methods, SEC actions, and bankruptcy risk.” Thus, the criteria for “trustworthy” according to Forbes was only based on financial reliability. 

AM Best, an insurance credit rating agency, also had positive things to say. They gave Primerica an A+ Financial Strength Rating, which is defined as being “assigned to insurance companies that have…a superior ability to meet their ongoing insurance obligations.” On their page about Primerica, U.S. News lists only the words “AM Best Rating A+” instead of mentioning the fact that this is only a financial review, not a multifaceted assessment. 

It’s evident that even commonly-trusted sources of information can fall victim to yellow journalism. When Forbes says a company is trustworthy and U.S. News reports on its A+ rating, you assume that their reporting is holistic and dogmatic. With further inspection, it’s more often the case that these news outlets indulge in cherry-picking. Thus, they lack contextual information about Primerica’s unethical business practices and employee satisfaction.

If there’s anything to take away from this article, it’s that you should be wary of everything you come across and trust your gut instincts above all else. If something feels wrong, it probably is. 

Primerica Group Photo via Flickr

Primerica Convention via Flickr

Handshake Screenshots via Author