High-flying women lose money in secret spiritual movement with 'hallmarks of pyramid scheme'

MARTIN DE RUYTER/FAIRFAX NZ

Fran Halford of Nelson talks about why she is speaking out about Circle.

New Zealand women are losing thousands of dollars to so-called women's gifting circles that purport to offer friendship and spiritual guidance but have all the hallmarks of a pyramid scheme. 

The Commerce Commission is warning women to steer clear of the circles, which claim to be women's empowerment groups that have the power to transform lives.

The leaders invite women to make a one-off gift ranging from US$1500 to $5000, and when eight women are eventually recruited the leader of the group can take the entire cash gift. If they are unable to recruit others the groups can collapse. 

Soreya James says gifting circles transform lives.

Soreya James says gifting circles transform lives.

About 100 New Zealand women are known to have been conscripted, under strict instructions to keep it "private". Some have been able to live off the proceeds of the gifting; others have been left thousands of dollars out of pocket and considering legal action. 

READ MORE:
* Spiritually transmitted disease – the poison lotus
'Naive' investors claim $650,000 lost to suspected Ponzi
Is Herbalife a pyramid scheme? Billionaires at odds over the question

The Commerce Commission confirmed it has received four complaints about gifting circles. Stuff has published a three-month investigation into the circles by journalist Anke Richter.

David White

Once she learned more about Circle, Kattia Wong decided she no longer wanted to be part of it.

Numerous former members of the circle have identified self-proclaimed wellness expert Soreya James (also known as Sheree Carbery) as being at the centre of the circles. 

James, 45, was one of the first women to join the circle, when it came to New Zealand more than three years ago. In that time she has completed five circles, but says rumours she lives off the proceeds are exaggerated.

Persuaded to speak publicly for the first time, she said she had received less than $100,000 from the circles.

Fran Halford, a Nelson doctor, spoke out about the Lotus women's gifting circles last year and likened them to a pyramid ...
MARTIN DE RUYTER/STUFF

Fran Halford, a Nelson doctor, spoke out about the Lotus women's gifting circles last year and likened them to a pyramid scheme.

In an interview at her unpretentious Mt Maunganui apartment, James said she lived modestly and at times had been on a benefit or living "hand to mouth" to make ends meet. 

"Women have perceived that I have received a lot more than I have ... There have been times where I have received, but I have also given a lot in this work. I've backed quite a few women and I've gifted other women.

Ad Feedback

"The money I've received from this is to support my family in a time of need, it's not like I've bought an apartment. Financially I'm not struggling, but I'm not wealthy by any means." 

"This supports women to live a much more abundant lifestyle and still do what they love to do – write their books or create their music," she continued.

"Conceptually, women understand giving and receiving. That's who we are, that's our nature. Men understand paying for things and investing in things."  

"This is not a pyramid scheme because a pyramid scheme is when somebody receives more and more and more money at the top … and the people at the bottom really struggle.

"But there's nobody at the top, there's no hierarchy. There's no leader, there's no organisation, there's no management,  and there's no woman anywhere, collectively, that is receiving more money than anybody else, and that's the difference." 

Women who have escaped the circles have a different story. "It's a spiritually-transmitted disease," Fran Halford told Richter.

The Nelson doctor was told she would enter a circle as a Seed, then move on to Sapling, then Blossom and finally be a Lotus herself to receive her gift of US$40,000 (NZ$56,000) from eight new women, plus coaching and sisterly support on the weekly group calls online.

Halford was urged to keep it private, especially from men, and told not to read anything online about the circles. "They had this evangelical glow and chased me hard. I trusted them."

She took out a bank loan to join a circle. She lost it all, but is more disappointed at her own gullibility.

Another woman, 45-year-old Auckland fashion designer Kattia Wong, decided to walk away from her circle and her money after reading criticisms online.

"I was so stressed I couldn't sleep," she told Richter. "They are twisting spirituality for personal gain. They have lied to me by saying it is legal and not a pyramid scheme. Many women would not join in the first place if they knew the truth."

The Commerce Commission says the gifting circles have the hallmarks of a pyramid scheme. The Commission was aware of at least one circle that required a $5000 buy-in, competition general manager Antonia Horrocks said. 

"Gifting circles first emerged in North America and are reported to have operated as pyramid schemes. We haven't investigated the New Zealand incarnations at this time and we don't have information to suggest these circles are common or widespread," Horrocks said.

"However, we strongly advise New Zealanders not join up. Hallmarks of pyramid schemes are that they require continued recruitment of new members, who have to pay to join, and there is an expectation members will eventually profit from being involved. These schemes collapse and those at the bottom lose their money. In addition, anyone operating or promoting a pyramid scheme risks prosecution."

Although the Commission has received complaints they were not investigating the circles. 

Most women spoken to who had been part of a circle asked not to be named because they were embarrassed and fearful of the repercussions of their name being associated with the circles, and expected a backlash from the women who had been successful at them. 

Others felt guilty that women who had scraped their money together as a gift, were later left penniless. 

One Auckland professional, a manager, was considering consulting a lawyer after losing US$5000 to a circle leader. The woman had backed out of the circle but the leader had made tens of thousands of dollars off the group. 

She warned women to do their research if they were invited into a group.

"I would say look, this happened to me, and I wouldn't recommend that to you. If you research it more thoroughly you will find it will fall over and people will lose out," she said.

"I would say it's a bad investment but a good learning experience. I met some good people, but I'm not sure if it was worth that much money."  

James insisted she felt a sense of responsibility to the women who had lost money in the scheme, but said those women wrongly believed the circle was an investment. She said it was women who were focused on the financial benefit rather than the personal gain who often lost out. 

"The ones that generally leave circle at the ones there for the money only."​

 - Sunday Star Times

Ad Feedback
special offers
Auckland

Girl, 9, drowns in bath video

Yearbury speaks to media outside the house where the 9-year-old girl drowned in a bathtub.

An Auckland family is "really raw at the moment" after a young child drowned at home.

Gangs' fight night draws skeptics video

Tokomauri Hoterene bloodied from his fight against Head Hunter Cory Enoka.

Members from 12 rival factions stepped into the ring in a show against street violence. But critics don't buy it.

Can micronutrients help with anxiety?

Julia Rucklidge's team is currently conducting a trial to see if micronutrients can improve depression and anxiety ...

One in 10 adults in the developed world now takes an antidepressant.

Us Two: The Mad Butcher and Don Graham

Sir Peter Leitch, left, and Don Graham.

'You know the saying, "He'd give you the shirt off his back?" I've actually seen him do that.'

Wellington

Norths and Ories finish with wins

The Marist St Pats defence struggles to contain Old Boys-University flanker Naera Tipoki at Evans Bay on Saturday.

It's MSP v HOBM and OBU v Tawa in the Jubilee Cup semifinals.

Our plastic shame video

Plastic breaks up in the ocean, and a net is required to estimate how many particles are floating in the plastic patch.

Researchers warn of a tsunami of plastic after the discovery of a 2.5m sq km plastic patch in the South Pacific.

Wellington loses Si and Gary show

Wellingtonians won't hear Si & Gary on their breakfast show anymore.

But they'll get something more local in return - Polly and Grant.

Ex-British Cars House for sale

The building features a tiled lobby and a vintage cage lift.

1920s character building with penthouse apartment and rooftop on the market.

Canterbury

Photos: Christchurch floods

Heathcote River flooding near Sloane Terrace.

The Heathcote River has burst its banks and flooded southern parts of the city.

Live: Southern deluge 

NZTA have issued ice warnings for many roads in Otago and Southland on Sunday.

State of emergencies declared in several areas as flood waters force scores of evacuations.

State of emergency in Chch

Christchurch's Heathcote River was in flood on Saturday morning.

Residents evacuated in boats as persistent rain floods the Heathcote River, closing roads and inundating properties.

Heathcote residents trapped

Waimea Terrace resident Tarapreet Singh, 25.

The kitchen sink is brimming with water and the nearly overflowing toilet is unflushable.

Waikato

'Kiwi culture' turns deadly video

Making a summer splash at locations such as the Raglan footbridge is seen as a Kiwi tradition but the consequences can ...

Four have suffered the same life-changing injury diving off a wharf; another was killed jumping from a bridge. Now, councils are taking action.

Lost trampers found

Police say the group became separated while tramping the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

A rescue helicopter has been sent to airlift trampers from the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

More drama for English teachers

Fortune is the brainchild of Scott Granville, left, and Ben Woollen of Chasing Time Productions, an award-winning ...

Two Kiwi film-makers are attacking a gap in the worldwide English language-teaching market.

 More pain for GPs   

Dr Tim Malloy, the president of the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners.

GPs say their sector is in crisis. Now they've got the ear of the Health Minister.

Taranaki

Terrier looking for a friend

210717 News Photo. SIMON O'CONNOR/STUFF
Katie Tahere's dog Mocha is looking for a walking buddy after her dog Coco ...

Mocha is looking for a new walking companion after losing her best friend.

Farewells not the focus

Chiefs coach Dave Rennie says the team aren't focusing on rallying together to try and send the departees out on a high.

Any game now could be the last for several stalwarts, but the Chiefs aren't using departures as motivation.

Building gets new roof

The New Plymouth District Council decided in January to use shingles instead of corrugated iron on the Gables under ...

The Gables Gallery's shiny new roof looks the part, thanks to 20,000 new shingles

From reporter to magical nanny

Not quite as graceful as Mary Poppins, but reporter Tara Shaskey gets a first-hand lesson on the production's flying stunts.

Mary Poppins is just a little bit magical. And that doesn't come easy or cheap.

Manawatu

Fetch not always a fun game

Chasing sticks can be a dangerous game, write vet Malcolm Anderson.

OPINION: Vet Malcolm Anderson offers some words of advice about the dangers of playing fetch.

No random drug tests 

Only following a police shooting do officers undergo drug and alcohol testing. (File photo).

Police are only given drug and alcohol testing if they fire a gun during an incident.

Millions spent fixing police cars

A police car comes to a final halt after crashing through a Hamilton property in June.

More than $8 million has been spent fixing damaged police cars in the past three years, with costs peaking in 2016.

Moon landing celebrated 

Buzz Aldrin stands on the Moon.

MEMORY LANE: Do you remember the first Moon landing?

Nelson

Nelson too good for Wanderers

22072017 NEWS PHOTO MARTIN DE RUYTER/ STUFF

Nelson players and support staff after winning the  Nelson Bays Division 1 ...

Nelson turn it on to hammer Wanderers in Nelson Bays club rugby final. 

Buzz about beekeeping

05062015 News Photo: Marion van Dijk / Fairfax NZ.

Urban beekeeper Nigel Costley with one of his beehives in the ...

Nelsonians keen to learn more about keeping bees can do so in a short course through the Nelson Environment Centre.

Trespass case win

Lawyer John Fitchett has won a trespass case against Nelson College.

Lawyer wins case against Nelson College board meetings, but judge unimpressed.

Dancers put their best foot forward

Lillian Southward performs in the Jazz Solo section at the Nelson Performing Arts Competitions 83rd Annual Festival at ...

 Toes were on point at the performing arts competition held over the weekend.

Marlborough

Escaping the Beast of Blenheim

Stewart Murray Wilson talks to journalist Harrison Christian while fishing at the Whanganui river mouth.

Even though he lives far away under strict conditions, Stewart Murray Wilson still haunts his former partner.

Locomotives reunited

Blenheim Riverside Railway Society volunteers, from left, Gary Coburn, Ted Ellens, and Ralph Heywood, are pleased they ...

Decades after shifting coal together, two locomotives share a shed again.

Moutere are champions

The Moutere division one team celebrate after beating Renwick in the final at Lansdowne Park on Saturday.

Moutere are the 2017 Marlborough division one rugby champions.

Chinese keen on pricey NZ crays

New Zealand crayfish is a premium product in China where it can fetch $1000 a kilo.

When it comes to high end gourmet goods the Chinese have a growing appetite for New Zealand wine, water and crayfish.

South Canterbury

Ready, set...chomp video

Randy Santel tackles the Gotham burger challenge at the Central Cafe in Geraldine.

US competitive eater polishes off NZ's largest burger in under 10 mins.

Weather eases in SC

A fine and sunny Sunday morning was a welcome sight for the residents of a water-logged Timaru.

South Canterbury starts to dry out as rain stops and sun comes out.

Storm fells 100 trees video

Timaru man Dave Esler among some of the swampy gum trees which came down in Friday's severe weather, and the remains of ...

Timaru man loses more than 100 gum trees to storm which hit South Canterbury.

Mackenzie blanketed 

Heavy snow is falling in Tekapo.

Snow is still falling in the Mackenzie after a dumping overnight.

Southland

Todd Barclay: the other side of the ledger

Yes, we're all aware of the irony. Todd Barclay and crew in the Birdman competition during the 40th Queenstown Winter ...

What positives might Todd Barclay be able to point to, in terms of his electoral efforts in Clutha-Southland?

Cancer care a 'postcode lottery'

Fred Futschek's wife Marie died in January 2013 of stomach cancer.

Countless Kiwis may be missing out on the care they need due to the geographical inconsistencies.

Barry addresses elder abuse

Invercargill MP Sarah Dowie with Maggie Barry at a public meeting for seniors in Windsor, Invercargill.

"Bad people predate on old people."

Stewart Island heritage gets $1m

An artist's impression of the Rakiura Heritage Centre. The centre has received, over $1 million in Government funding to ...

The Government is to commit $1.08m to the Rakiura Heritage Centre Trust.

Ad Feedback