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What is a 'Ponzi Scheme'

A Ponzi scheme is a fraudulent investing scam promising high rates of return with little risk to investors. The Ponzi scheme generates returns for older investors by acquiring new investors. This is similar to a pyramid scheme in that both are based on using new investors' funds to pay the earlier backers. For both Ponzi schemes and pyramid schemes, eventually there isn't enough money to go around, and the schemes unravel.

BREAKING DOWN 'Ponzi Scheme'

A Ponzi scheme is an investment fraud where clients are promised a large profit at little to no risk. Companies that engage in a Ponzi scheme focus all of their energy into attracting new clients to make investments. This new income is used to pay original investors their returns, marked as a profit from a legitimate transaction. Ponzi schemes rely on a constant flow of new investments to continue to provide returns to older investors. When this flow runs out, the scheme falls apart.

Origins of the Ponzi Scheme

The first notorious Ponzi scheme was orchestrated by a man named Charles Ponzi in 1919. The postal service, at that time, had developed international reply coupons that allowed a sender to pre-purchase postage and include it in their correspondence. The receiver would take the coupon to a local post office and exchange it for the priority airmail postage stamps needed to send a reply.

With the constant fluctuation of postage prices, it was common for stamps to be more expensive in one country than another. Ponzi hired agents to purchase cheap international reply coupons in other countries and send them to him. He would then exchange those coupons for stamps that were more expensive than the coupon was originally purchased for. The stamps were then sold as a profit.

This type of exchange is known as an arbitrage, which is not an illegal practice. Ponzi became greedy and expanded his efforts. Under the heading of his company, Securities Exchange Company, he promised returns of 50% in 45 days or 100% in 90 days. Due to his success in the postage stamp scheme, investors were immediately attracted. Instead of actually investing the money, Ponzi just redistributed it and told the investors they made a profit. The scheme lasted until 1920, when an investigation into the Securities Exchange Company was conducted.

Ponzi Scheme Red Flags

The concept of the Ponzi scheme did not end in 1920. As technology changed, so did the Ponzi scheme. In 2008, Bernard Madoff was convicted of running a Ponzi scheme that falsified trading reports to show a client was earning a profit.

Regardless of the technology used in the Ponzi scheme, most share similar characteristics:

  1. A guaranteed promise of high returns with little risk
  2. Consistent flow of returns regardless of market conditions
  3. Investments that have not been registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)
  4. Investment strategies that are a secret or described as too complex
  5. Clients not allowed to view official paperwork for their investment
  6. Clients facing difficulties removing their money
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