In a fascinating article, the LA Times reports that as many as one million working-class people in China have been fleeced of their hard-earned savings in an ant farming pyramid scheme run by a company with close ties to the Chinese government.
These ants were far more than uninvited picnic guests, [investors] were told. When ground into a powder, they become an aphrodisiac, a kidney purifier and general cure-all, the Yilishen Tianxi Group declared. The ants would earn them a 30% annual return.
In reality, critics say, the ants apparently were little more than the bait for a vast pyramid scheme. Over an eight-year period, the company recruited as many as 1 million would-be ant farmers, collecting about $1.2 billion. In mid-December, it filed for bankruptcy.
The company hired as its spokesman Zhao Benshan, a famous comedian and actor who specializes in playing a hick. He has since dropped out of sight.
The boxes at the heart of the ant farming business are made of cardboard with a 2-inch-square plastic window and a small feeding hole framed so badly with duct tape that they look like the work of a careless teenager with a box cutter.
In return for their money, ant farmers were given the boxes, ants and a list of strict instructions: The ants need a spritz of water mixed with white sugar or honey at 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. every day. They should be fed cake and egg yolks every three to five days. And they should be kept indoors.
In return, the company would come and pick up dead dried ants every 74 days. Under no circumstances were the ant farmers to open their boxes and look inside, they were told, to ensure that the special Yilishen ants weren't mixed with inferior ants.