2005-02-03 12:11:33 UTC
Have I got a deal for you! I can double your money in just ninety days,
Nonsense, you say!
What? You don't trust me? I promise you that it can be done. A man named
Charles Ponzi delivered on such on such a promise back in 1920.
Now, I know what you are thinking. This has to be some type of scam. Well,
I would be lying if I said that it wasn't. (Put your money back in the
bank. You're not getting rich this week.)
How it all started.
Carlo "Charles" Ponzi was born in Parma, Italy 1882 and then emigrated to
the United States in November of 1903. Over the next fourteen years, Ponzi
wandered from city to city and from job to job. He worked as a dishwasher,
waiter, store clerk, and even as an Italian interpreter. In 1917, he
settled back into Boston where he took a job typing and answering foreign
mail. It was here in Boston on that fateful day in August of 1919 that
Ponzi discovered the mechanism to make both him and his investors very
At the time, Ponzi was considering issuing an export magazine. He had
written a letter about the proposed publication to a gentleman in Spain, and
when Ponzi received his reply, the man had included an international postal
reply coupon. The idea behind this enclosure was quite simple. Ponzi was
to take the coupon to his local post office and exchange it for American
postage stamps. He would then use those American stamps to send the
magazine to Spain.
Ponzi noticed that the postal coupon had been purchased in Spain for about
one cent in American funds. Yet, when he cashed it in, he was able to get
six American one-cent stamps. Just think of the possibilities if you could
do this. You could buy $100 worth of stamps in Spain and then cash them in
for $600 worth of stamps in the United States. Then cash in or sell the
stamps to a third party and you have, well, good old cash. You just can't
get this kind of interest in the bank.
Ponzi's mind quickly went into overdrive and devised a clever scheme to
capitalize on his idea. He was determined to be a rich man. His first step
was to convert his American money into Italian lire (or any other currency
where the exchange rate was favorable). Ponzi's foreign agents would then
use these funds to purchase international postal coupons in countries with
weak economies. The stamp coupons were then exchanged back into a favorable
foreign currency and finally back into American funds. He claimed that his
net profit on all these transactions was in excess of 400%.
Was he really able to do this? The answer is a definite no. The red tape
of dealing with the various postal organizations, coupled with the long
delays in transferring currency, ate away at all Ponzi's imagined profits.
Things got just a bit out of hand.
A failed scheme couldn't keep Ponzi from bragging about his great idea.
Friends and family members easily understood what he was saying and they
wanted in on the investment. And, lets face it, if you flash money in
someone's face, they are bound to take it.
On December 26, 1919, Ponzi filed an application with the city clerk
establishing his business as The Security Exchange Company. He promised 50%
interest in ninety days and the world wanted in on it. Yet, he claimed to
be able to deliver on his promise in just forty-five days. This, of course,
translates into being able to double your money in just ninety days.
Word spread very quickly about Ponzi's great idea and within a few short
months the lines outside the door of his School Street office began to grow.
Thousands of people purchased Ponzi promissory notes at values ranging from
$10 to $50,000. The average investment was estimated to be about $300.
(That was a big chunk of pocket change in those days.)
You are probably sitting there puzzled. Why would so many people invest in
a scheme that didn't work? The real reason was that the early investors did
see the great returns on their money. Ponzi used the money from later
investors to pay off his earlier obligations. It was a new twist on the
age-old pyramid scheme.
With an estimated income of $1,000,000 per week at the height of his scheme,
his newly hired staff couldn't take the money in fast enough. They were
literally filling all of the desk drawers, wastepaper baskets, and closets
in the office with investor's cash. Branch offices opened and copycat
schemes popped up across New England.
By the summer of 1920, Ponzi had taken in millions and started living the
life of a very rich man. Ponzi dressed in the finest of suits, had dozens
of gold-handled canes, showered his wife in fine jewels, and purchased a
twenty-room Lexington mansion.
Any get rich scheme is certain to attract the attention of the law, and
Ponzi was no exception. From the start, federal, state, and local
authorities investigated him. Yet, no one could pin Ponzi with a single
charge of wrongdoing. Ponzi had managed to pay off all of his notes in the
promised forty-five days and, since everyone was happy to get their
earnings, not a single complaint had ever been filed.
On July 26, 1920, Ponzi's house of cards began to collapse. The Boston Post
headlined a story on the front page questioning the legitimacy of Ponzi's
scheme. Later that day, the District somehow convinced to suspend taking in
new investments until an auditor examined his books. (Why anyone who was
doing something so highly illegal would let auditors examine his books is
Within hours, crowds of people lined up outside Ponzi's door demanding that
they get their investment back. Ponzi obliged and assured the public that
his organization was financially stable and that he could meet all
obligations. He returned the money to those that requested it. By the end
of the first day, he had settled nearly 1000 claims with the panicked crowd.
By continuing to meet all of his obligations, the angry masses began to
dwindle and public support swelled. Crowds followed Ponzi's every move. He
was urged by many to enter politics and was hailed as a hero. Loud cheers
and applause were coupled with people eager to touch his hand and assure him
of their confidence.
And Ponzi continued to dream. He had planned to establish a new type of
bank where the profits would be split equally between the shareholders and
the depositors. He also planned to reopen his company under a new name, the
Charles Ponzi Company, whose main purpose was to invest in major industries
around the world. (Apparently, no one ever told Ponzi that the key to any
successful swindle was to take the money and run.)
The public continued to support him until August 10, 1920. On this date,
the auditors, banks, and newspapers declared that Ponzi was definitely
bankrupt. Two days later, Ponzi confessed that he had a criminal record,
which just worsened his situation. In 1908, he had served twenty months in
a Canadian prison on forgery charges related to a similar high-interest
scheme that he had participated in there. This was followed in 1910 by an
additional two-year sentence in Atlanta, Georgia for smuggling five Italians
over the Canadian border into the United States.
On August 13th, Ponzi was finally arrested by federal authorities and
released on $25,000 bond. Just moments later he was rearrested by
Massachusetts authorities and re-released on an additional $25,000 bond.
In the end.
The whole thing turned into one gigantic mess. There were federal and state
civil and criminal trials, bankruptcy hearings, suits against Ponzi, suits
filed by Ponzi, and the ultimate closing of five different banks.
Of course, we cannot forget the problem of trying to settle Ponzi's accounts
in an attempt to return all of the people's investments.
An estimated 40,000 people had entrusted an estimated fifteen million
dollars (about $140 million in U.S. funds today) in Ponzi's scheme. A final
audit of his books concluded that he had taken in enough funds to buy
approximately 180,000,000 postal coupons, of which they could only actually
confirm the purchase of two.
Ponzi's only legitimate source of income was $45 that he received as a
dividend of five shares of telephone stock. His total assets came to
$1,593,834.12, which didn't come close to paying off the outstanding debt.
It took about eight years, but note holders were able to have an estimated
thirty-seven percent of their investment returned in installments. In other
words, many people lost big time.
Ultimately, Ponzi was sentenced to five years in federal prison for using
the mails to defraud. After three and one-half years in prison, Ponzi was
sentenced to additional seven to nine years by Massachusetts's authorities.
He was released on $14,000 bond pending an appeal and disappeared about
Where did he go? Did he leave the country? Did he just vanish off of the
face of the Earth? No one was really sure.
No, he turned up a short time later in the great state of Florida. Under
the assumed name of Charles Borelli, Ponzi was involved in a pyramid (big
surprise, huh?) land scheme. He was purchasing land at $16 an acre,
subdividing it into twenty-three lots, and selling each lot off at $10 a
piece. He promised all investors that their initial $10 investment would
translate into $5,300,000 in just two years. Wow!!! Too bad much of that
much of the land was underwater and absolutely worthless.
Ponzi was indicted for fraud and sentenced to one year in a Florida prison.
Once again, he jumped bail on June 3, 1926 and ran off to Texas. He hopped
a freighter headed for Italy, but was captured on June 28th in a New Orleans
port. On June 30th he sent a telegram to President Calvin Coolidge asking
to be deported. Ponzi's request was denied and he was sent back to Boston
to complete his jail term. After seven years, Ponzi was released on good
behavior and deported to Italy on October 7, 1934. Believe it or not, even
after all of his swindling, he still had many fans that were there to give
him a rousing sendoff.
Back in Rome, Ponzi became an English translator. Mussolini then offered
him a position with Italy's new airline and he served as the Rio de Janeiro
branch manager from 1939-1942. Ponzi discovered that several airline
officials were using the carrier to smuggle currency and Ponzi wanted a cut.
When they refused to include him, he tipped off the Brazilian government.
The Second World War brought about the airline's failure and Ponzi soon
found himself unemployed.
Once again, he wandered from job to job. He tried running a Rio lodge, but
that failed. He then alternated between earning a pittance providing
English lessons and drawing from the Brazilian unemployment fund.
Ponzi died in January of 1949 in the charity ward of a Rio de Janeiro
hospital. Somehow, the man who had gone from poverty to multi-millionaire
and right back to poverty in a matter of six months had managed to save up
$75 to cover the costs of his burial. He left behind an unfinished
manuscript appropriately titled "The Fall of Mister Ponzi". And what a rise
and fall it was.