Girls just want to have funds

The government would like to outlaw pyramid selling. Why? Rachel Royce has joined Hearts, the girls-only investment scheme, and finds it good, clean - and profitable - fun

I have a confession to make - but please don't tell my boyfriend. I've made a somewhat high-risk investment. It will cost me L375, but for that I can expect a return of L6,000 - maybe. It's a gamble - I know it's a gamble - but I thought that amount of money could be laundered from the housekeeping, lost somewhere among the cornflakes and the chardonnay and bailiff demands for forgotten Blockbuster videos.
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The scheme I've invested in is known as Hearts, and it's for women only. It calls itself a 'gifting scheme that benefits all women'. Men aren't allowed in because they'd ruin it with their incessant cynicism and greed. They aren't even supposed to know about it. That, in a way, is the point.

It works like this: you buy a 'heart' for L3,000 and then recruit some friends to do the same. If you are like me and pathetically poor, then you can opt to buy a smaller share - in my case, an eighth of a heart.

When a sufficient number of new people have been recruited, you're in line for a lovely pay-out. You throw a party. Your friends come to your house with stacks of cash. You serve up the champagne and say thank you very much as you count your winnings: eight times your money. That's not a bad return, now, is it?

Hearts is heartily disapproved of by boyfriends, partners, husbands, and by the government, which wants to ban it. Ministers say that it doesn't work and women are being conned. They say it's a form of pyramid selling where those at the top do very well and those at the bottom lose their entire investment. Tessa Jowell, taking a break from attacking the BBC, said a few weeks ago, 'I feel particularly concerned that many women have lost thousands of pounds of hard-earned savings, and many more may lose out. There is no doubting the misery these schemes can cause, and my advice to women contemplating joining is simple: "Don't do it."'

Hearts began in the United States and has gone under other names such as 'Women Empowering Women' and 'The Network'. It surfaced in this country about three years ago. Famously, there was a scheme on the Isle of Wight. At first people made a lot of money. The NatWest bank in Newport had so many L3,000 withdrawals that it was concerned its branches would run out of money. But then it all came to an abrupt halt. The pool of new investors dried up and hundreds of people lost out. That, say the women, is because men were involved, with their cynicism and greed. Plus, the Isle of Wight was too small for the scheme to spread.

When I heard that Tessa Jowell was against the scheme, I thought, hell, I'd better join up. And I kept humping into friends who had done very well out of it. A decent pay-out, I thought, would clear the overdraft.

I was introduced to the scheme by a friend called Tori, who was signed up by her friend called Torli. Confusing, I know. But their names alone may give you some indication of the political and sociological composition of this Hearts business. It's an upper-middle-class thing. In my neck of the woods it's a horsey, upper-middle-class thing. The women sign up, wait and buy a nice new horse.

You get introduced to the scheme at convivial gatherings. A glass of wine by the river; a coffee morning in someone's nice house while the husband is away somewhere being cynical and greedy.

It wasn't really what you'd call a hard sell, over at Torli's house. But it was nevertheless seductive. I had a couple of glasses of wine on her lawn by the River Wylye and chatted with other Hearts investors. Two of them were friends from the stables where I keep my horse. Adrienne has been through Hearts three times and has made something like L30,000, she said. She's given L10,000 away to a friend who was hard up. Katie is on her second scheme and used her winnings to buy a new thoroughbred, which she plans to use for cross-country eventing.

Torli has also been through the scheme several times. She invested in a heart for a friend who'd recently been widowed. She didn't tell her; she just turned up at her house some weeks later with L6,000 cash. 'It's not just about helping yourself,' Torli told me. 'Lots of people are doing it to help friends who are hard up or to raise money for charity.'

Traditionally, pyramid schemes like these were aimed at people desperate for cash, but the current schemes are popular with the well-to-do. Lady Portia Agar, daughter of Lord Normanton, and her friend, Flora Harrap, the grandaughter of Lord Carbery, were among the first to join. Even Claudia Schiffer was spotted at a Hearts party in Eaton Square. Lady Elizabeth Anson, a cousin of the Queen, is reported to have made L48,000. 'It may sound like an avaricious scheme,' says Lady Elizabeth, 'but it's just not. One church I know has a new roof, and someone who urgently needed private medical care but couldn't afford it herself has now been able to pay for it. Quite apart from that, it's very social and people have a lot of fun doing it. Because of the high rate of re-investment, it's never a case of being too late.'