It takes time to build a solid reputation, and to earn the trust and respect of your peers, co-workers, clients and an organization’s leadership. The fruit of your labor is your personal brand. It’s something to be polished and protected from tarnish.

With the ability to reach out to dozens, or even hundreds or sometimes thousands, of people at a time through email and social media, you probably know a few people who supplement their primary income by selling something. Have you gotten invitations to parties selling jewelry, gadgets or health supplements? Facebook groups for “pop-up shops” are another method used by some sellers.

Many of these businesses utilize the multi-level marketing model — people make money through their own sales, as well as the sales of people who they recruit to their sales teams.

Multi-level marketing is legal, but there’s a fine line between these businesses and illegal pyramid (or “Ponzi”) schemes. The main difference is that with multi-level marketing, your income is based on actual product sales; with a pyramid scheme, your income is based on your efforts to recruit other distributors. A Ponzi scheme is similar to a pyramid scheme, but focuses on fake investment opportunities, instead of sales.

Make sure you do your research before joining a multi-level marketing business. Ask yourself if anything about the business or your role could damage your professional reputation. If the answer is “no,” double-check your primary employer’s policies, including conflict of interest and possible disclosure requirements, before taking the plunge.

Here are some additional issues to consider.

• What will you be selling? Find out what you will be selling and compare prices and quality with other products. Make sure that any marketing materials you will be using are truthful and there is evidence to support positive claims about the products.
• Learn about the company. Look into the company’s track record and reputation, and check for a business review and complaints at www.bbb.org. Do an Internet search with the name of the company and words like “scam” or “complaint.” You can also search for news articles related to the company.

• Understand the plan. Make sure you are clear on all terms and conditions of the plan, including pay and expenses. Remember that, as you recruit other distributors, you are responsible for any claims you make about how much money they can earn, so be sure any claims are backed up with evidence. Get all information in writing.

• Ask for the name and contact information of someone at the company who can answer your questions. Ask the person things like, “How many people are on your team?” “How long have you been in the business?” “How much money did you make last year?” “How much product did you sell to customers and how much to distributors?”

Angie Barnett is president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Greater Maryland. She can be reached at 410-347-3990 and abarnett@greatermd.bbb.org.