Consumer Confidential

David Lazarus: ‘Society’ pushes phony ‘secrets’ of success

DAVID LAZARUS, consumer columnist and contributor to American Public Media’s Marketplace radio programDecember 10, 2013 

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What if Atlas hadn’t held up the world? “Atlas Shrugged” and other Ayn Rand novels inspired a movement that has now spawned a front for a scam.

MCT

What if a shadowy organization told you it had been quietly keeping its eye on you and had concluded that you were exactly the sort of person who should be privy to its secrets for wealth and power?

What if that organization promised the success and youthful vitality of investment guru Warren Buffett and Viacom chief Sumner Redstone, who already possess these secrets?

And what if all this could all be yours absolutely free?

“I’d think it was a scam,” said Los Angeles resident Jim York, 60, who recently received a letter from a recruiter identifying himself only as Bill.

The organization, which calls itself the Society, is a front for an Ayn Rand-inspired movement that’s been around since the 1980s under various guises, including Neo-Tech, Neothink, Nouveau Tech and Novatech.

The founder of Neo-Tech, Frank R. Wallace, whose real name was Wallace Ward, was a chemist-turned-author who was convicted of income tax evasion in 1997. He died in 2006 at age 73.

But his you-can-do-it notions — and marketing techniques — live on.

The letter received by York represents one of the more elaborate sales pitches I’ve encountered. At 10 pages in length, it’s nothing if not ambitious.

And its contents, with repeated references to York by first name and suggestions of intimate knowledge of his doings, reflect a hard-sell aggressiveness that make uber-huckster Ron Popeil seem shy by comparison.

York’s letter informs him that he’s “been on our radar for quite some time.”

“It’s our business to keep tabs on people. Not for nefarious purposes. But we like to add to our ranks so we can get even stronger,” the letter states.

Bill, the recruiter, observes that York is a chip off the old block. “I don’t mean to brag,” he writes, “but I have all the wealth, power, sex and authority that I will ever need.”

Even so, he is “obligated by an oath” to seek the worthiest people to join the Society’s ranks, and York is among a relative handful of inductees chosen for this year. All he has to do is mail the Society’s “membership invitation certificate” to a Dallas post office box or fax it to a Dallas phone number, and he’ll receive a free copy of the group’s secrets.

According to the letter, these include how to make tons of money, seduce whomever you choose, boost your intelligence, get others to like you, beat the odds at poker and lose as much weight as you desire.

Pretty great secrets, right? And not at all the sorts of things that seem designed to catch the fancy of self-esteem-challenged introverts desperate for a sense of popularity and belonging.

The Internet is dripping with comments from people who have received identical letters. But it’s no easy task to find the people behind the Society. That Dallas address and fax number, for example, are a blind alley. They’re for a Texas company that handles the group’s correspondence.

It took some digging, but I was finally able to track down a man who goes by the pseudonym of Mark Hamilton but who is actually the son of Neo-Tech’s founder. He operates out of Henderson, Nev.

Hamilton, 55, acknowledged being the current torchbearer for the Neo-Tech movement and the source of the Society letters, which he admitted are sales pitches that lead to people receiving free pamphlets that spell out Neo-Tech ideas in greater detail.

The pamphlets, in turn, are intended to draw people into spending $135.50 for a 1,200-page manuscript Hamilton wrote that he described as “faction — mixing fact with fiction.” He said that, like his father, he was strongly inspired by Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.”

I asked if sending people a 10-page letter purporting to be an invitation to join a super-secret organization is the most honest way of selling a book.

“This is our business model,” Hamilton replied. “This is how we sell them.”

I asked if he was comfortable with saying in the letter that he would “share the secrets of the Society with you … absolutely free!”

Hamilton acknowledged that full access to the Society’s secrets will cost $135.50 — not to mention additional charges for other works — but he said the movement’s “main secret” was included in the free pamphlet.

What is it? Hamilton said it’s the secret of self-leadership. He described it as knowing how not to be a follower but to instead take the initiative and “forge your own path.”

What about the letter’s claim that only a “select few” are worthy of membership in the Society? Hamilton admitted that about 200,000 copies of the letter are mailed out each year, but he said recipients were carefully chosen from mailing lists obtained by his company, Neo-Tech Publishing.

For example, he said, a person who subscribes to Forbes or Fortune magazines and who also has ordered a copy of Rand’s “The Fountainhead” from the Book of the Month Club — all data that Neo-Tech has access to — would be deemed a prime candidate to receive the Society’s letter.

He said the Society now has “a few hundred thousand” members who convene from time to time to share their plans for fame and fortune. But even though Buffett and Redstone are mentioned prominently in the Society’s letter, Hamilton said neither man is a member of the group.

“I’ve spent years studying these people,” he said. “They very clearly know these secrets.”

And that tells you everything you need to know: These aren’t really secrets. They’re common-sense approaches to life that people can figure out on their own.

Hamilton told me he’s about to try a new strategy. He’s going to give away nearly all Neo-Tech secrets for free online in hopes that people will be so impressed, they’ll want to splurge on leather-bound copies.

You can call that self-leadership. Or self-delusion.

•••

david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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