Biz Cults Ruthless

Better Business Bureau gets threats

Edmunton Sun/March 12, 2000
By David Sands

A city business group has heard "threats that would straighten your hair and wrinkle your face" in its attack on cult-like business groups.

"Not only have we been threatened here, some of the people who gave us information have been very, very afraid," said Better Business Bureau president Ross Bradford.

People who have escaped the ruthless, fast-changing groups, or tried to take others out, "have been told to disappear, or else," Bradford said.

His agency says it will continue to fight the companies it says use cult techniques like "love bombing" to capture and exploit young workers, trapping them into brutal, unpaid hours in door-to-door sales often thousands of kilometres from home. "This is real. It's very real."

Edmonton city police Det. Mel Roth agrees.

"People expect a cult to have something to do with the occult, or bizarre beliefs, David Koresh kind of thing," said Roth, who runs the cults desk of the Edmonton police integrated intelligence unit.

Marketing cults, he said, use sleep deprivation, poor nutrition and psychological badgering just as religious cults do.

The Better Business Bureau waded into the fight when Bradford discovered nobody else would, or could. "There was no government agency or regulatory agency that would take this problem by the horns."

Roth said the cults simply are not illegal. "We collect information on cults. We don't go out and investigate them. If there's something criminal, we will investigate, but it's not illegal to belong."

Furthermore, he said, the marketers sell legitimate products such as magazines, coupons, flowers, watches and pens. "The groups running these people are selling something legit. The problem," Roth said, "lies in how they do it."

Former sellers told Bradford's agency the "how" includes exhausting hours, little food, chants, isolation from their families and psychological and emotional pressure.

University of Alberta sociology Prof. Stephen Kent, a cults expert, revealed to a panel discussion on the groups that he'd seen internal company documents.

"There was a specific routine designed to keep people in, a set of lies that trainers were to tell people. Most interesting were passages in which staff members were told to think of the company as their new family," Kent said.

Since then and for the past five years the Better Business Bureau has actively warned youngsters who may be targets and convinced newspapers to pull their classified ads.

Still, the marketers find another cult favourite to be an effective way to recruit. Opponents call it "love bombing."

"That's used in a lot of groups," said Roth. "They find people who are new to town or shy and don't have a lot of friends. These people approach them and invite them to social gatherings, or just out for coffee, whatever approach they think is right. They get these people feeling really welcome, part of a group. They become their substitute family."

And, says Bradford, the real family pays the price.

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