The words “ponzi” and “pyramid” can often be seen on online investment forums and scam warnings.
In this article, we intend to clearly explain the nature of these schemes and why people should be
careful about them.
Ponzi schemes are a type of illegal pyramid scheme named for Charles Ponzi,
who duped thousands of New England residents into investing in a postage stamp speculation scheme
back in the 1920s. Ponzi thought he could take advantage of differences between U.S. and foreign
currencies used to buy and sell international mail coupons. Ponzi told investors that he could
provide a 40% return in just 90 days compared with 5% for bank savings accounts. Ponzi was deluged
with funds from investors, taking in $1 million during one three-hour period—and this was 1921!
Though a few early investors were paid off to make the scheme look legitimate, an investigation
found that Ponzi had only purchased about $30 worth of the international mail coupons.
Decades later, the Ponzi scheme continues to work on the "rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul" principle,
as money from new investors is used to pay off earlier investors until the whole scheme collapses.
In the classic "pyramid" scheme, participants attempt to make money solely by recruiting new
participants into the program. The hallmark of these schemes is the promise of sky-high returns in
a short period of time for doing nothing other than handing over your money and getting others to do the same.
The fraudsters behind a pyramid scheme may go to great lengths to make the program look like a legitimate multi-level marketing program. But despite their claims to have legitimate products or services to sell, these fraudsters simply use money coming in from new recruits to pay off early stage investors. But eventually the pyramid will collapse. At some point the schemes get too big, the promoter cannot raise enough money from new investors to pay earlier investors, and many people lose their money.
Pyramid schemes now come in so many forms that they may be difficult to recognize immediately. However,they all share one overriding characteristic. They promise investors large profits based primarily on recruiting others to join their program, not based on profits from any real investment or trading activities. Some schemes may purport to be trading currencies, stocks, or bonds, but they often simply use these excuses to hide their pyramid structure.
A Ponzi scheme is closely related to a pyramid because it revolves around continuous recruiting,
but in a Ponzi scheme the promoter generally has no product to sell and pays no commission to
investors who recruit new "members." Instead, the promoter collects payments from a stream of
people, promising them all the same high rate of return on a short-term investment. In the typical
Ponzi scheme, there is no real investment opportunity, and the promoter just uses the money
from new recruits to pay obligations owed to longer-standing members of the program.
In English, there is an expression that nicely summarizes this scheme: It's called
"stealing from Peter to pay Paul." In fact some law enforcement officers call Ponzi schemes
"Peter-Paul" scams. Many of you may be familiar with Ponzi schemes reported in the international
financial news. For example, the MMM fund in Russia, which issued investors shares of stock and
suddenly collapsed in 1994, was characterized as a Ponzi scheme.
Both Ponzi schemes and pyramids are quite seductive because they may be able to deliver a high rate
of return to a few early investors for a short period of time. Yet, both pyramid and Ponzi schemes
are illegal because they inevitably must fall apart. No program can recruit new members forever.
Every pyramid or Ponzi scheme collapses because it cannot expand beyond the size of the earth's