Entrepreneurs

This ex-'Apprentice' star is accused of running a $15 million Amazon scam 

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Federal authorities have accused a former contestant on NBC's "The Apprentice" and her husband of scamming people out of more than $15 million by claiming to teach them how to make millions of dollars selling products on Amazon.

On Monday, the Federal Trade Commission said it has charged Jessie Conners Tieva (who appeared as a contestant on the first season of "The Apprentice" in 2004) and her husband, Matthew R. Tieva, with "running a large business opportunity scheme" called Sellers Playbook. The FTC filed the charges on July 30.

Jessie Conners Tieva in 2004.
Dimitrios Kambouris | WireImage
Jessie Conners Tieva in 2004.

The Tieva's Minnesota-based business allegedly made "false and unsubstantiated claims" such as telling prospective customers that they could make as much as $20,000 per month, along with an overall net profit of more than $1.2 million, by purchasing Sellers Playbook's expensive system of business courses and seminars focused on making money as a third-party Amazon seller, according to the FTC.

Sellers Playbook, which touted Tieva as a "former Apprentice contestant and serial entrepreneur," offered to teach its customers "how to handle customers and get positive reviews, and get to the top of Amazon's search results" in order to rake in money selling items on the e-commerce site.

With regard to the potential earnings touted by Sellers Playbook, the FTC says in its press release announcing the charges against the Tievas that "few, if any, consumers achieved these results, and most lost money."

Sellers Playbook launched in 2017, offering free seminars hosted by Jessie Conners Tieva across the U.S., after which point the company would reportedly pitch a package that included three-day business courses starting at a price of nearly $500. Customers would also be asked to buy even more expensive courses from Sellers Playbook during the three-day workshops, with the FTC claiming that "many consumers paid them more than $32,000" despite not seeing enough returns to justify those expenses.

Third-party sellers on Amazon — individuals and small businesses re-selling a variety of new, used or refurbished items on the site — do account for a lot of business on the e-commerce site. Last year, third-party sellers accounted for more than half of the items sold on Amazon.

However, at the heart of the FTC's charges is authorities' allegations that the Tievas acted "deceptively" with "misleading" claims to convince customers that they could use Amazon's platform for third-party merchandise sellers to make significant sums of money. The FTC says Sellers Playbook had "no adequate basis" for the claims it made about how much money its customers were likely to make on Amazon, especially considering that many of their customers ended up losing money when their expenses for Sellers Playbook's courses are taken into account.

In fact, the FTC alleges that the content and advice offered in the Sellers Playbook's most expensive seminars and coaching sessions was "substantially similar" to the strategies offered in the cheaper workshops.

In total, the FTC claims that Sellers Playbook took in more than $15 million from customers between April 2017 and May 2018. A federal court has temporarily halted operations of the Sellers Playbook website pending the resolution of the FTC's case.

The FTC press release notes that the Tievas "have no affiliation with Amazon," while Amazon says it is cooperating with law enforcement.

An Amazon spokesperson said in a statement: "The entrepreneurs and small businesses selling on Amazon are incredibly important to us and our customers, and we aggressively pursue those that attempt to harm their selling experience. We invest heavily to protect the integrity of our stores and take action to protect customers and sellers, including working with consumer protection agencies and law enforcement. We have zero tolerance for fraud and abuse and will continue to cooperate with law enforcement to pursue criminals."

Jessie Conners Tieva told Pioner Press that Sellers Playbook has "thousands of students who have been very successful" using the company's system. "Our whole reason for starting this is to help other people become successful. … There are some people out there who think they can get the world handed to them and not work for anything," she told the newspaper.

Prior to launching Sellers Playbook, Jessie Conners Tieva also ran a company called Exposure Marketing, through which she "promoted, sold and benefited from a similar scheme" by working with a company called FBA Stores, which also sold customers on a system that would purportedly allow them to earn large sums of money selling products on Amazon. Conners Tieva led FBA Stores sales presentations and took a commission on any sales she helped generate, with Exposure Marketing eventually earning over $349,000 from that relationship before Conners Tieva ended the partnership in March 2017 in order to launch Sellers Playbook with her husband, according to the FTC.

The FTC also helped shut down that scheme in March and the FBA Stores founders were ordered to return $10.8 million to their customers. Despite her involvement in that scheme, Conners Tieva was not a defendant in the previous case, but her participation in the FBA Stores scheme is included in the FTC's charges of misrepresenting earnings in the case announced on Monday.

An attorney representing Sellers Playbook and the Tievas did not immediately respond to CNBC Make It's request for comment.

Disclosure: NBC and CNBC are divisions of NBCUniversal.

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