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Page last updated at 08:58 GMT, Sunday, 10 May 2009 09:58 UK
Ponzi schemes: A brief history

Charles Ponzi
Charles Ponzi was deported to Italy and died poor in Brazil

The term 'Ponzi scheme' has worked its way back into the vocabularies of anyone who has been following the emerging global financial crisis.

The popular term for the fraud is named after Italian immigrant Carlos (Charles) Ponzi, who set up a string of multi-million dollar such schemes, first in Boston and later in Florida in the 1920s.

Ponzi schemes advertise attractive rates of return for investors in order to lure in money. Those returns are then paid for with other, later investors' own deposits into the scheme.

As no real value is created and no extra wealth - or not enough new wealth - is generated from that money, the schemes are doomed to eventual failure as they owe more money in returns than they hold in investments.

When investors come calling to withdraw or cash in their investments, the Ponzi is exposed, authorities are usually alerted and 'sure things' crumble.


Charles Dickens' 1857 novel Little Dorrit featured a life-destroying Ponzi scheme decades before its namesake was born.

Fast-forward to December 2008 and Bernard Madoff's business empire in New York caused portfolios to suffer huges losses around the world.

Estimated at $65bn (£43bn), it is believed to be the world's biggest and longest-running Ponzi scheme, with questionable elements and investments dating as far back as the 1970s.

In February 2009, regulators in the United States accused avid cricket supporter Sir Allen Stanford of also running an elaborate Ponzi scheme that Panorama has found short-changed investors by as much as $6.7bn (£4.4bn).

Sir Allen has denied any wrongdoing and insisted that his Antigua-based bank was "not a Ponzi".

The dramatic reversal of fortunes owing to apparent Ponzi schemes exposed amid the current global recession has led to the phrase 'Ponzimonium' being coined.

Madoff admits $50bn fraud scheme
Thursday, 12 March 2009, 23:47 GMT |  Business
False security led to Madoff scandal
Tuesday, 16 December 2008, 15:13 GMT |  Business


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