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Chelsea Ouimet has more than a million followers between her two Instagram accounts, “Chelsea the Affiliate” and “Hustle with Chelsea.” The self-described stay-at-home mom of three smiles broadly and shows off her beautiful home in video posts touting ways to make money — quickly — through a business model called affiliate marketing.

“All you need is a phone, a laptop, wi-fi and one to three hours a day,” she says in one of dozens of videos posted on her pages. In one post, she says the average annual salary of an affiliate marketer, with no experience, is $177,566. “I made that salary in my first 11 weeks,” she says.

Affiliate marketing is not new, but social media triggered an explosion of interest — and an array of concerns. The market for online learning courses has boomed in recent years, spanning professional development platforms to online influencers selling lessons on everything from gig work to the timeless art of seduction.

Dozens of companies online offer courses to teach you how to get into affiliate marketing. Typically, affiliates earn a commission on sales of products they recommend. The internet is full of videos with people saying they became millionaires through affiliate marketing. Part of the appeal is that these jobs can be pitched as a “side hustle” that don’t require as much time and effort as a full-time position.

I really thought I was just doing a $7 course. I was very, very shocked about it being a lot more than that.

Dana Gunning, Legendary Marketer customer

Side hustles have continued to become more common during this period of persistent inflation, particularly for younger people. A survey from the financial services company LendingTree published in February found that more than half of millennials and Gen Z supplement their main source of income with other moneymaking activities.

Ouimet and many others tout a $7 course offered by a company called Legendary Marketer. For that small investment, she says, you can learn how to earn thousands of dollars working from home for just a few hours a day. The company says its $7 “15-day business builder challenge” has “over 800 success stories.”

But not everyone has a success story. Dana Gunning, Loretta Lynne and Stacha Woessner, who took the course separately, told NBC News they signed up after seeing videos like Ouimet’s on social media.

“When I joined, I really thought I was just doing a $7 course. I was very, very shocked about it being a lot more than that,” Gunning said.

The women said that several days into their online course, they were surprised when a “business adviser” met with them over Zoom, telling them that to really earn money, they needed to buy the “Uplevel Blueprint” course for $2,500.

Woessner said the adviser told her: “Sell your car if you have to, put it on a credit card, borrow money from your friends or family. Spend this $2,500 and your life’s gonna change tremendously.”

All three women spent the $2,500 each and said the experience was informative. Their biggest takeaway, though? The fast way to make real money was to resell the same course to others, they said. For every $2,500 course they sold, they would earn a $1,000 commission, they added.

This was not the kind of affiliate marketing that Legendary Marketer promoted on social media, Lynne said. The videos, she said, told her that she could be an affiliate for brands such as Nike and Lululemon.

“But that’s not what they’re doing,” she said. “They just want you to resell their course.”

In online videos, Legendary Marketer CEO Dave Sharpe tells potential customers: “I’ve gone from completely broke to living the life of my dreams.” On its website, the company says it has “$250 million in career sales” and “well over half of that has been paid out to affiliate partners.”

But the fine print on Legendary’s website reads, “This is not a get rich quick program” and “the average person” should expect “little to no results.”

“The overhyped marketing is one of the biggest downsides of Legendary Marketer,” said Niall Doherty, who ranks affiliate marketing courses on his website, eBiz Facts, and often earns commissions on those he recommends. He has researched and reviewed Legendary Marketer’s 15-day platform.

Realistically, Doherty said, affiliate marketers should expect to put in a lot of work and temper their expectations about how much they will actually earn.

“If you work hard at building up an affiliate marketing business for a year, not just a side hustle, the best-case scenario is that you’d be earning $1,000 a month after 12 months.”

Lynne said she earned several thousand dollars in commissions after taking the Legendary Marketer courses, but stopped after a few weeks, uneasy about upselling people.

Gunning had a similar experience. “I made one sale and I felt very bad about it,” she said, “promoting a $7 course when that’s not the goal.”

Woessner said she didn’t make any money at all and quit after a few months. 

After NBC News contacted the Better Business Bureau to ask about customer complaints, the organization took away Legendary Marketer’s A rating and started an investigation. The agency also posted an alert on Legendary Marketer’s page, citing “a pattern of customer complaints” about the company’s advertising and upsells. 

Sharpe declined to be interviewed for this story but said in a statement in part that he takes “all feedback seriously” and is working with the BBB to address its concerns.” The $7 course gives people value and knowledge about digital marketing, “like all Legendary Marketer courses,” he added.

Sharpe also said he’s working with affiliates like Ouimet to “ensure proper compliance” in marketing and disclosure to customers that there are more products for sale beyond the $7 course.

Ouimet did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Gunning, Lynne and Woessner, meanwhile, now earn commissions working with Legendary competitors. They said they have sold other courses, but their primary earnings come from selling digital products, building websites and recommending products from a variety of companies.

They advise anyone interested in becoming an affiliate marketer to read reviews and research multiple courses. Lynne said she now makes a good living doing affiliate and digital marketing, but it’s definitely not a side hustle. She said it took a long time to build her businesses and she still works long hours. 

“There is money in affiliate marketing,” Lynne said. “But you’ve gotta learn the right way to do it.”

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