Listening to her daughters talk about authorities branding the Puth Group as an illegal pyramid scheme, the mother recalls how in the early 1990s she joined a scheme and won a pressure cooker and started looking for more members in the village in Thimphu.

She was introduced to the paper-based scheme by a neighbour who became a member while in Samtse to meet her in-laws. She recalls how members won sewing machines, video games (Super Mario), then a choice of their children and many more. Not many realised it was no different to the latest pyramid schemes and online scams, many who let you win a few to rob you entirely in the end. 

The lure for easy money cannot get Bhutanese out of the scammers’ hook. It just shows our vulnerability notwithstanding the interventions from authorities. Just two years ago, a host of social media influencers joined the authorities in an aggressive advocacy campaign against shady digital investment schemes and related scams that lure people with promises of profit.

On top of the awareness programmes are the warnings and advisories from the police and central banks. Despite these, many fall victim to scammers. Puth Group, before it was branded as a pyramid scheme, had many Bhutanese members. The e-commerce business licence the proprietor acquired made it easier to convince people to join.

The process is the same. Such schemes make money by recruiting more and more members or sellers at the bottom of the ladder. People try scrutinising schemes by checking the members. Victims say that seeing senior civil servants, corporate employees, relatives and friends as members provide them the security or assurance to join the scheme.

Ponzi schemes, online scams and pyramid schemes, will keep coming back in different names and strategies. The next one will be more convincing if aided with artificial intelligence that, for instance, might even let you talk to your relatives or friends  in real time about their new fortunes. 

We cannot stop scams. Many originate from beyond our borders. WeChat, a social media application is offering rewards for just sharing the contact. They have video clips of Bhutanese thanking WeChat for the rewards. But we can stop people from being a victim.

What makes Bhutanese more vulnerable is the secrecy surrounding the scams or schemes, especially when one loses money. Even if colleagues or relatives come to know about the loss, they will not admit, forget advising or warning them from joining such schemes. 

Scammers or fraudsters are always one step ahead as authorities. The risk is high as smartphones loaded with social media apps are means of communication and entertainment. Being information and media literate could help to a large extent.  

 The lesson: No one will give you easy money.