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A fraudulent investment plan in which the investments of later investors are used to pay earlier investors, giving the appearance that the investments of the initial participants dramatically increase in value in a short amount of time.
A Ponzi scheme is a type of investment Fraud that promises investors exorbitant interest if they loan their money. As more investors participate, the money contributed by later investors is paid to the initial investors, purportedly as the promised interest on their loans. A Ponzi scheme works in its initial stages but inevitably collapses as more investors participate.
A Ponzi scheme is a variation of illegal pyramid sales schemes. In a pyramid sales plan, a person pays a fee to become a distributor. Once the person becomes a distributor, he receives commissions not only for the products he sells but also for products sold by individuals that he brings into the business. These new distributors are beneath the person who brought them into the pyramid scheme, so they are "under the pyramid." In illegal pyramid schemes, only the people at the top of the pyramid make substantial money because they get a commission from the products sold by everyone below them. As more people become distributors, the persons lower in the pyramid have less chance to make money.
A Ponzi scheme was once was called a "bubble," but it was renamed in 1920 after Charles Ponzi and his Boston-based company had collected almost $10 million from ten thousand investors by selling promissory notes that claimed to pay 50 percent profit in forty-five days. When the scheme was exposed, a Boston bank collapsed, and investors lost most of their money.
Ponzi, an Italian immigrant, thought of profiting from the widely varying currency exchange rates for International Postal Reply Coupons (IPRCs), which were redeemed for stamps. IPRCs were intended to facilitate the sending of international mail. The sender put an IPRC, rather than a stamp, on a piece of mail going to another country, and the recipient exchanged the IPRC for the appropriate stamp in her country.
Ponzi contended that he could pay a small amount for IPRCs in weak-currency countries and then redeem them at a substantial profit in the United States. He correctly noted that a stamp transaction might yield a 400 percent profit, but the amount of profit in real terms was very small. Nevertheless, he promoted his idea through his Boston-based Securities Exchange Company. In March 1920 he began soliciting funds for purchasing the IPRCs with a promised 40 percent return in ninety days. Bank interest rates at the time were just five percent. Investors started loaning Ponzi their money, and within a short time he increased the promised return on forty-five-day notes to 50 percent. He also promised a 100 percent return on funds loaned to him for ninety days. He pledged to refund money on demand to any investor before the loan period was up.
Money soon flooded Ponzi's offices. By July 1920 he was taking in $1 million a week. Ponzi made an arrangement with the Hanover Trust Company of Boston to deposit his funds. Hanover officials soon realized that Ponzi was not paying his initial investors with interest income but with the deposits of the new investors. Nevertheless, the bank eagerly sold Ponzi a large amount of its stock.
On August 2, 1920, a Boston newspaper revealed the fraud and reported that Ponzi was hopelessly insolvent. Thousands of victims immediately demanded refunds. Ponzi paid as many as he could but exhausted his funds in a week. He then declared Bankruptcy. In bankruptcy, the court ordered all of the persons who had been paid by Ponzi during the life of the scheme to return the proceeds to the bankruptcy trustee, who distributed the money on a pro rata basis to all of the other victims. Ponzi was eventually convicted of fraud in both state and federal court and imprisoned for several years.
The Ponzi scheme did not end with Charles Ponzi. It has proved to be a reliable scam in which persons are lured into giving their money to con artists who promise enormous financial returns. The early cycle of a Ponzi scheme appears to confirm the reliability of the investment, as some investors are paid the promised returns. The scheme is doomed to collapse when not enough new money exists to pay old obligations.Gullible individuals are not the only victims of Ponzi schemes. In the early 1990s, John G. Bennett, Jr., and his Foundation for New Era Philanthropy lured many U.S. universities and nonprofit groups into investing millions of dollars in the foundation. Bennett promised these organizations that they would double their money in six months with the help of anonymous philanthropists. In May 1995 Prudential Securities, Inc., where most of the funds were deposited, discovered that New Era was under federal investigation and froze its accounts.
The action triggered New Era's bankruptcy. Bennett was later charged with eighty-two counts of fraud, Money Laundering, and income Tax Evasion. As with the original Ponzi scheme, defrauded investors agreed to be reimbursed for up to 65 percent of their losses, with the money coming from groups that had deposited money with New Era early in the scheme and made a profit.
Internationally, the nation of Albania was plunged into civil unrest in 1997 when a multimillion-dollar Ponzi scheme collapsed. Many Albanians had invested large amounts of their savings in the scheme, which allegedly had the backing of Albanian government officials. Faced with economic ruin, citizens rioted against the government.
Dunn, Donald H. 1975. Ponzi!: The Boston Swindler. New York: McGraw-Hill.
"Treatment of Investors in Ponzi Scheme." 2003. Tax Management Memorandum (April 21).
Weisman, Stewart L. 1999. Need and Greed: The Story of the Largest Ponzi Scheme in American History. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse Univ. Press.