The Anatomy of a Ponzi Scheme – Commentary by Fraud Prevention Expert Chuck Gallagher

February 2, 2010

“I have an inside track on a great investment.  You’ll get better than a 12% per year return.  But, there are only a limited number of folks that I can get in on this offering.  You interested?

STEP ONE – make a promise that seems ‘special’ or ‘better’ than what anyone else can get on their investment funds!

“Wow…this is great.  I just got our statement in the mail and you know that investment I made in that private fund that Joe recommended…well its done better than he projected.  The market has been down, but this has returned over 16% thus far.  Man…I’m glad we got in on this deal!”

STEP TWO – Create an illusion that the investment is real.  This is done with fake statements (Bernie Madoff has had co-workers indicted for their role in creating fake documents).  Gordon Grigg is now in jail for his Ponzi scheme when he made a simple mistake on one of his fake statements.  He reversed the names and instead of calling them Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac he stated Fannie Mac and Freddy Mae…oops.

“Hey Frank…I know you told me the other day how badly your portfolio has been.  Well, I got connected with one of my friends on a private placement investment and, well, I was hesitant at first, but it’s been going great guns.  We’re up over 16% this year and I have a guarantee of 12%.  I didn’t say anything at first, but I thought that you might want to connect with this guy.  He’s really got it together.  Who knows, if you put some money with him…you might be able to dig yourself out of the hole a bit quicker.  Want me to call him and see if he could take you on?”

STEP THREE – Grow the fraud using trust.  First you trusted the person who hooked you into the fraud, and now you’re using that same blind trust to lead others to the slaughter.  Ouch…it will be painful both emotionally and financially on the back side.

HISTORY:

Charles Ponzi arrive in Boston on November 15, 1903, aboard the S.S. Vancouver. By his own account, Ponzi had $2.50 in his pocket, having gambled away the rest of his life savings during the voyage. “I landed in this country with $2.50 in cash and $1 million in hopes, and those hopes never left me,” he later told The New York Times. He quickly learned English and spent the next few years doing odd jobs along the East Coast, eventually taking a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant, where he slept on the floor. He managed to work his way up to the position of waiter, but was fired for shortchanging the customers and theft.

NOTE: There was a pattern of theft and unethical behavior, but the consequence of his actions were not significant enough for Ponzi to change his ways.

Imprisoned for forgery, Ponzi spent three years in the prison St. Vincent-de-Paul near Montreal. Rather than inform his mother of this development, he posted her a letter stating that he had found a job as a “special assistant” to a prison warden.   After his release in 1911 he decided to return to the United States, but got involved in a scheme to smuggle Italian illegal immigrants across the border. He was caught and spent two years in Atlanta Prison, where he met inmate Charles W. Morse, a wealthy Wall Street businessman and speculator, where he learned of greater opportunities than simple petty theft.

Ponzi seized on, what he said was an opportunity, to use postal coupons (I guess today we’d call them stamps), to make money.  IRCs (the postal coupons referred to) were priced at the cost of postage in the country of purchase, but could be exchanged for stamps to cover the cost of postage in the country where redeemed; if these values were different, there was a potential profit.  Here’s where Ponzi dreamed up his opportunity for fraud.

Ponzi went to several of his friends in Boston and promised that he would double their investment in 90 days. The great returns available from postal reply coupons, he explained to them, made such incredible profits easy. Some people invested and were paid off as promised, receiving $750 interest on initial investments of $1,250.

NOTE: The scheme always involves a promise of something that the average bloke just can’t get.  So when someone – especially someone you trust tells you that they have a fail safe investment that offers great returns…be prepared to be scammed.

Soon afterward, Ponzi started his own company, the “Old Colony Foreign Exchange Company,” to promote the scheme. He set up shop in a building on School Street. Word spread, and investments came in at an ever-increasing rate. Ponzi hired agents and paid them generous commissions for every dollar they brought in. By February 1920, Ponzi’s total take was US$5,000, (approximately US$54,000 in 2008 dollars). By March, he had made $30,000 ($328,000 in 2008 terms). A frenzy was building, and Ponzi began to hire agents to take in money from all over New England and New Jersey. At that time, investors were being paid impressive rates, encouraging yet others to invest. By May 1920, he had made $420,000 ($4.59 million in 2008 terms).

NOTE: The illusion was in full force.  Just as soon as folks began to see the promised returns happening (just as promised) they began to believe that what they were seeing was real.  Bernie Madoff, Gordon Grigg, and many many more in just 2009 did exactly the same thing.  They promised something and delivered…creating the illusion that all was just as portrayed.  What investors didn’t know was that the returns they were seeing came from other peoples investments.

By July 1920, Ponzi had made millions. People were mortgaging their homes and investing their life savings. Most did not take their profits, but reinvested.

NOTE: Another psychological part of most Ponzi schemes is that once there is an element of trust, greed sets in and investors (wanting more and more) do not take their profits, but rather leave them for yet bigger and bigger profits.  In effect, victims would rather gamble with their funds than protect their assets.

Ponzi was bringing in cash at a fantastic rate, but the simplest financial analysis would have shown that the operation was running at a large loss. As long as money kept flowing in, existing investors could be paid with the new money. In fact, new money was the only way Ponzi had to pay off those investors, as he made no effort to generate legitimate profits.

NOTE: It seems odd, but the obvious somehow becomes clouded in the quest for more money.  In the Madoff scam…people now looking back could have seen that what he was doing couldn’t work…yet, Madoff survived three SEC investigations with flying colors.  It seems that it is human nature to want to believe that what is not real somehow is real.

Ponzi lived luxuriously: he bought a mansion in Lexington, Massachusetts with air conditioning and a heated swimming pool, and he maintained accounts in several banks across New England besides Hanover Trust. He also brought his mother from Italy in a first-class stateroom on an ocean liner.

NOTE:  Most Ponzi schemers use the funds (for the most part) for an illusory lifestyle.   That’s part of the illusion that causes people to trust the schemer.  Madoff, Grigg, Stanford (although he’s not yet been found guilty) Huffman and others all have become part of the illusion that promotes trust so that more people will invest (oops…become scammed).

Joseph Daniels, a Boston furniture dealer who had given Ponzi furniture which he could not afford to pay for, sued Ponzi to cash in on the gold rush. The lawsuit was unsuccessful, but it did start people asking how Ponzi could have gone from being penniless to being a millionaire in so short a time. There was a run on the Securities Exchange Company, as some investors decided to pull out. Ponzi paid them and the run stopped. On July 24, 1920, the Boston Post printed a favorable article on Ponzi and his scheme that brought in investors faster than ever. At that time, Ponzi was making $250,000 a day. Ponzi’s good fortune was increased by the fact that just below this favorable article, which seemed to imply that Ponzi was indeed returning 50% return on investment after only 45 days, was a bank advertisement that stated that the bank was paying 5% returns annually. The day after this article was published, Ponzi arrived at his office to find thousands of Bostonians waiting to give him their money.

NOTE: At the height of the schemes most fraudsters find that their false promise supported by an illusion and reinforced with trust (many times of well known and influential individuals) drives ever more folks to be sucked into the PIT. (PROMISE, ILLUSION AND TRUST).  Likewise, at its height that is generally when the pendulum is preparing to swing in – well lets say – a more truthful direction.  In other words the house of cards is soon to collapse.

On July 26, the Post started a series of articles that asked hard questions about the operation of Ponzi’s money machine. The Post contacted Clarence Barron, the financial analyst who published the Barron’s financial paper, to examine Ponzi’s scheme. Barron observed that though Ponzi was offering fantastic returns on investments, Ponzi himself was not investing with his own company. Barron then noted that to cover the investments made with the Securities Exchange Company, 160 million postal reply coupons would have to be in circulation. However, only about 27,000 actually were. The United States Post Office stated that postal reply coupons were not being bought in quantity at home or abroad.

The stories caused a panic run on the Securities Exchange Company. Ponzi paid out $2 million in three days to a wild crowd outside his office. He canvassed the crowd, passed out coffee and donuts, and cheerfully told them they had nothing to worry about. Many changed their minds and left their money with him. However, this attracted the attention of Daniel Gallagher (no relation by the way – although that would be quite a coincidence), the United States Attorney for the District of Massachusetts. Gallagher commissioned Edwin Pride to audit the Securities Exchange Company’s books—an effort made difficult by the fact his bookkeeping system consisted merely of index cards with investors’ names.

The denouement for Ponzi began in late July, when McMasters found several highly incriminating documents that indicated Ponzi was merely robbing Peter to pay Paul. He went to his former employer, the Post, with this information. The paper offered him $5,000 for his story. On August 2, 1920, McMasters wrote an article for the Post declaring Ponzi hopelessly insolvent. The article claimed that while Ponzi claimed $7 million in liquid funds, he was actually at least $2 million in debt. With interest factored in, McMasters wrote, Ponzi was as much as $4.5 million in the red. The story touched off a massive run, and Ponzi paid off in one day. He then sped up plans to build a massive conglomerate that would engage in banking and import-export operations.

On August 11, it all came crashing down for Ponzi. First, the Post came out with a front-page story about his activities in Montreal 13 years earlier—including his forgery conviction and his role at Zarossi’s scandal-ridden bank. That afternoon, Bank Commissioner Allen seized Hanover Trust after finding numerous irregularities in its books. Although the commissioner did not know it, this move foiled Ponzi’s last-ditch plan to “borrow” funds from the bank vaults after all other efforts to obtain funds failed.

With reports that he was due to be arrested any day, Ponzi surrendered to federal authorities on August 12 and was charged with mail fraud for sending letters to his marks telling them their notes had matured. He was originally released on $25,000 bail, but after the Post released the results of the audit, the bail bondsman withdrew the bail due to concerns he might be a flight risk.

The news brought down five other banks in addition to Hanover Trust. His investors were practically wiped out, receiving less than 30 cents on the dollar. The Post won a Pulitzer Prize in 1921 for its exposure of Ponzi’s fraud.

WHERE ARE WE TODAY?

Same place we were when old Charles created what we now call the “Ponzi scheme.”  Robbing Peter to Pay Paul is the name of this game and unfortunately it existed before Charles Ponzi (he just got the notoriety for it) and continues to this day…and unfortunately will continue.

People get victimized, in a sense, by their own greed – although many don’t wish to admit that.  But, reality is – the investor (victim) wants a better return than he/she can get elsewhere (they fall victim to a false promise).  The illusion that the fraudster creates lures the investor victim into believing that what seemingly can’t be real – in fact is.  And, most fraudsters prey first on those closest to them – their friends, family and close acquaintances people that trust them.

The fraudster typically uses need, opportunity and rationalization to effect their crime while the victim falls into the PIT – or stated this way, they fall victim to a PROMISE supported by an ILLUSION which has a foundation in TRUST.

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