Raymona Josephs, a 61-year-old postal worker, had heard about sou sous for years but was never tempted to participate in one until last year. Two of her girlfriends at work kept urging her to join their “circle of wealth” with the promise she would receive a payout of $2,000 after making nominal weekly contributions to it.
Unfortunately, Josephs never received what she contributed to the savings club because a ‘trusted’ friend absconded with the monies. “I should have just put my money in the bank! I can’t believe I fell for this racket! I lost all of my $2,000 investment and can’t do anything about it! I feel so stupid,” says the Bronx, New York resident. “My money would have been safe in a bank!”
Josephs joined an informal savings club commonly known as a sou sou, a type of pyramid scheme that has been operating in the U.S. for decades. Sou sou got its roots in West Africa and the Caribbean. Many who have joined a sou sou believed it would be a great way to share money with folks they cared about and trusted to fight the hard times.
How it works: A small group of people–friends, colleagues, and family–all contribute a fixed amount of money either weekly, biweekly, or monthly to a fund. For example, say ten people join, and each puts in $100 a week. Each week for ten weeks, one of those ten people will receive the whole $1,000, until they have had a turn. An organizer or treasurer is responsible for collecting the money each week or pay period.
In order to keep the fund going strong, participants have to keep recruiting more contributors.
Other types of pyramid-like savings clubs guarantee a higher return on an initial investment and these types of opportunities go by names such as “The Circle Game,” “Blessing Loom,” or “Money Board,” among other names. According to the Better Business Bureau, if you see “The Blessing Loom” or similar schemes pop up in your timeline, or someone you know asks you to join, don’t fall for it. Chances are you will lose your money.
Are there any benefits to joining a sou sou:
- If saving money is a challenge, then a sou sou forces you to build a financial goal. It is a group initiative that you have agreed to enter into along with other members. Continuing to hold up your part of the bargain is crucial to the fund’s overall success.
- Folks who distrust banking institutions might be tempted by the promise of a savings plan with a quick payoff sans the red tape.
- It helps create a community of disciplined savers, opening the door to explore more traditional financial opportunities.
There are, however, downsides to getting involved in a sou sou:
- There are no formal written contracts when joining a sou sou. Participation in a group is primarily based on trust. The sou sou can suddenly end if someone steals the monies, or there are no recruits brought into the circle, which causes the fund to dry up. In any case, the group’s members are left penniless and with very little recourse.
- There is no interest on your investment.
- You only get back what you put into the sou sou and not a penny more.
- If you receive your payout, you might be tempted to spend all of the money on a whim instead of investing it.
- The money is paid out when you get it and not necessarily when you need it.
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission offers the following warning about pyramid schemes like sou sous:
If you see a post or get a direct message on Instagram, Facebook, or other social media about one of these clubs, think twice and remember the warning signs. If the offer comes from a friend or family member, tell them about this scheme. And, if you’ve been contacted to join a sou sou, please tell us: ftc.gov/complaint. Your report can help us protect others from a scam.