The Direct Selling Association (DSA), a lobbying group for the MLM industry, reported that in 1990 only 25% of DSA members used the MLM business model. By 1999, this had grown to 77.3%.[26] By 2009, 94.2% of DSA members were using MLM, accounting for 99.6% of sellers, and 97.1% of sales.[27] Companies such as Avon, Electrolux, Tupperware,[28] and Kirby were all originally single-level marketing companies, using that traditional and uncontroversial direct selling business model (distinct from MLM) to sell their goods. However, they later introduced multi-level compensation plans, becoming MLMs.[23] The DSA has approximately 200 members[29] while it is estimated there are over 1,000 firms using multi-level marketing in the United States alone.[30]

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Because of the encouraging of recruits to further recruit their competitors, some people have even gone so far as to say at best modern MLMs are nothing more than legalized pyramid schemes[4][19][20] with one stating "Multi-level marketing companies have become an accepted and legally sanctioned form of pyramid scheme in the United States"[19] while another states "Multi-Level Marketing, a form of Pyramid Scheme, is not necessarily fraudulent."[20] In October 2010 it was reported that multilevel marketing companies were being investigated by a number of state attorneys general amid allegations that salespeople were primarily paid for recruiting and that more recent recruits cannot earn anything near what early entrants do.[60] Industry critic Robert L. FitzPatrick has called multi-level marketing "the Main Street bubble" that will eventually burst.[61]

Not all MLM companies are created equal. Many see an initial burst of success followed by a gradual tapering off of profits, causing them to collapse and go out of business. MLM companies that succeed have sound business models, both for those who run the company and for those who sell product and recruit new sales agents. There are many sites devoted to MLM rankings, creating lists of companies likely to provide a return on investment to sales agents interested in the industry.
The most persuasive documentation is obtained through direct methods and used to verify that retail sales are made to real customers. Documentation obtained through indirect methods – such as policies requiring participants to attest they have sold a certain amount of product to qualify to receive reward payments – are less likely to be persuasive, with unsupported assertions being even less persuasive.

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In an October 15, 2010 article, it was stated that documents of a MLM called Fortune Hi-Tech Marketing reveal that 30 percent of its representatives make no money and that 54 percent of the remaining 70 percent only make $93 a month, before costs. Fortune was under investigation by the Attorneys General of Texas, Kentucky, North Dakota, and North Carolina with Missouri, South Carolina, Illinois, and Florida following up complaints against the company.[39] The FTC eventually stated that Fortune Hi-Tech Marketing was a pyramid scheme and that checks totaling more than $3.7 million were being mailed to the victims.[40]
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An MLM’s compensation structure may give its participants incentives to make representations about the business opportunity to current or prospective participants. As a consequence, an MLM should (i) direct its participants not to make false, misleading, or unsubstantiated representations and (ii) monitor its participants so they don’t make false, misleading, or unsubstantiated representations.
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