Charles Ponzi (March 3, 1882–January 18, 1949) was an Italian immigrant to the United States who became one of the greatest swindlers in American history. His aliases include Charles Ponei, Charles P. Bianchi, Carl and Carlo. Although many people have never heard of Ponzi himself, the term "Ponzi scheme" is a widely known description of a system of fraudulent "make money fast" schemes promoted through the Internet and elsewhere to this day.
Parts of Charles Ponzi's life are somewhat difficult to determine, due to his propensity to fabricate and embellish facts. He was born Carlo Ponzi in Lugo, Italy in 1882 (not Parma as some accounts hold, although he resided there as a teenager). He took a job as a postal worker early on, but soon was accepted into the University of Rome La Sapienza. His friends considered the university a "four-year vacation", and he was inclined to follow them around to bars, cafés, and the opera. At some point, short on funds, Ponzi dropped out of university and boarded the S.S. Vancouver bound for Boston, Massachusetts, USA.
Arrival in America
By his own account, Ponzi arrived in the United States in 1903 with two dollars and fifty cents in his pocket, having gambled away the rest of his life savings during the voyage. 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 short changing the customers and theft.
In 1907 Ponzi moved to Montreal, Canada, and became an assistant teller in the newly opened Banco Zarossi, a bank started by "Louis" Luigi Zarossi to service the influx of Italian immigrants arriving in the city. Zarossi paid 6% interest, double the going rate, on bank accounts, and was growing rapidly as a result. Ponzi found out that the bank was in serious financial trouble because of bad real estate loans, and that Zarossi was funding the interest payments not through profit on investments, but by using money deposited in newly opened accounts. The bank eventually failed and Zarossi fled to Mexico with a large portion of the bank's money.
Ponzi stayed in Montreal and, for some time, lived at Zarossi's house helping the man's abandoned family while planning to return to the United States and start over. As Ponzi was penniless, this proved to be very difficult. Eventually he walked into the offices of a former Zarossi customer and, finding no one there, wrote himself a check for $423.58 in a check book he found, forging the signature of a director of the company. Confronted by police who had taken note of his large expenditures just after the forged check was cashed, Ponzi held out his hands wrist up and said "I'm guilty." He ended up spending three years in a Quebec prison as Inmate # 6660. 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 an Atlanta prison. Here he became a translator for the warden, who was intercepting letters from a famous mobster, Ignazio "the Wolf" Lupo. Ponzi ended up befriending Lupo. However it was another prisoner who became a true role model to Ponzi; Charles Morse convinced doctors he was dying by eating soap shavings, and was released early.
The Ponzi scheme
When Ponzi was released he eventually made his way back to Boston. There he met an Italian girl, Rose Gnecco, who was swept off her feet by Ponzi's charm. Though Ponzi did not tell Gnecco about his years in jail, his mother sent Gnecco a letter telling her of Ponzi's past, but she remained with him, marrying in 1918. For the next few months he worked at a number of businesses, before hitting upon an idea to sell advertising in a large business listing to be sent to various businesses, an idea which others would later, independently, invent as the Yellow Pages. Ponzi, unfortunately, was unable to sell this idea to businesses, and his company failed soon after.
A few weeks later Ponzi received a letter in the mail from a company in Spain asking about the catalogue. Inside the envelope was an international postal reply coupon (IRC), something which he had never seen before. He asked about it and found a weakness in the system which would in principle allow him to make money.
The purpose of the postal reply coupon was to allow someone in one country to send it to a correspondent in another country, who could use it to pay the postage of a reply. For use within the same country, postage stamps would be sent; but stamps issued by one country cannot be used in another. IRC’s 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. Inflation after the First World War had much decreased the cost of postage in Italy expressed in U.S. dollars, so that an IRC could be bought cheaply in Italy and exchanged for U.S. stamps to a higher value. The process was: send money abroad; have IRC’s purchased by agents; send the IRC’s to the U.S.A.; redeem the IRC’s for stamps to a higher value; sell the stamps. Ponzi claimed that the net profit on these transactions, after expenses and exchange rates, was in excess of 400%. This was a form of arbitrage, or buying low and selling high, which is not illegal.
Ponzi canvassed friends and associates to back his scheme, offering a 50% return on investment in 45 days. The great returns available from postal reply coupons, he explained to them, made such incredible profits easy. He started his own company, the Securities Exchange Company, to promote the scheme.
Some people invested, and were paid off as promised. The word spread, and investment 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 $5,000 USD, a large sum for the time.
By March he had made $30,000. 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. He began depositing the money in the Hanover Trust Bank, in hopes that once his account was large enough he could impose his will on the bank or even be made its president; he did, in fact, get a controlling interest in the bank.
By July 1920 he had made millions. People were mortgaging their homes and investing their life savings. Most did not take their profits, but reinvested.
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, but colossal liabilities were accumulating.
Ponzi lived luxuriously: he bought a mansion with air conditioning and a heated swimming pool, and brought his mother from Italy in a first-class stateroom on an ocean liner. He was a hero among the Italian community, and was cheered wherever he went.
There were signs of Ponzi's eventual ruin: a furniture dealer, who had given Ponzi furniture when he could not afford to pay, 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 cheerfully and the run stopped. In fact, on July 24, 1920, the Boston Post printed a positive article on Ponzi and his scheme that brought in investors faster than ever. At that time, Ponzi was making $250,000 a day.
Despite this reprieve, one of the editors of the Post was suspicious and assigned investigative reporters to check Ponzi out. He was also under investigation by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and on the day the Post printed its article Ponzi met with state officials. He managed to divert the officials from checking his books by offering to stop taking money during the investigation; a fortunate choice, as proper records were not being kept. Ponzi's offer temporarily calmed the suspicions of the state officials.
By this time Ponzi was seeking another deal to get him out of the golden trap he had built for himself, but time was running out. 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 wasn't investing with his own company.
Barron then noted that to cover the investments made with the Securities Exchange Company, 160,000,000 postal reply coupons would have to be in circulation. However, only about 27,000 coupons were actually circulating. The United States Post Office stated that postal reply coupons were not being bought in quantity at home or abroad. The gross profit margin in percent on buying and selling each IRC was colossal, but the overhead required to handle the purchase and redemption of these items, which were of extremely low cost and were sold individually, would have exceeded the gross profit.
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.
There was something clueless in Ponzi's cleverness. He had set a scheme in motion that was sure to collapse sooner or later. He was pulling in a pile of cash, but only at the expense of going into even greater debt. At some point the logical move, from a criminal viewpoint, would have been to relocate to a place outside the reach of American authorities. Instead, he stayed where he was and continued to pay out. Ponzi wanted to look as honest as possible, and according to his autobiography, he was always hoping he could use the fortune he was accumulating to start a legitimate business that would make enough money to pay back all his investors and make everyone rich. Among the ideas he floated was buying a $300 million American warship and turning it into a floating shopping mall, promoting patriotism and commerce by stocking it with American goods. However, like most of Ponzi's business plans this was wild and absolutely impossible; if he ever had $300 million to spend from his out-of-control scheme, he would be that much in debt ($3 billion in 2006 dollars) before he sold a single thing from his ship.
In the short term, Ponzi had hired a publicity agent, James McMasters. However, McMasters quickly became suspicious of Ponzi's endless talk of postal reply coupons, as well as the ongoing investigation against him. He went to the Post, calling Ponzi a "financial idiot." The paper offered him five thousand dollars for his story, and ran a headline on August 2 declaring Ponzi hopelessly insolvent. On August 10 federal agents raided the Securities Exchange Company and shut it down. There was no large stock of postal reply coupons. The Hanover Trust Bank was shut down as well.
The Post continued their articles, with one revealing Ponzi's jail record and publishing his (smiling) Canadian mug shots. By August 13, Ponzi was under arrest, with a Federal indictment citing 86 counts of fraud. Ponzi's supporters were outraged at the officers who arrested him. 17,000 people had invested millions, maybe tens of millions, with Ponzi. Many who were ruined were so blinded by their faith in the man or their refusal to admit their foolishness that they still regarded him as a hero.
Prison and later life
On November 1, 1920, Ponzi pleaded guilty to mail fraud, and was sentenced to five years in federal prison. He was released after three and a half years to face state charges. He was again found guilty and sentenced to nine years. Before entering state prison, Ponzi jumped bail and fled to Florida, where he set up a scam to sell "prime Florida property" to gullible investors. Florida authorities quickly wised to Ponzi's scam. He fled to Texas, where he shaved his head, grew a moustache, and tried to flee the country as a crewman on a merchant ship. He was caught and sent back to Massachusetts to serve out his prison term.
In the meantime, government investigators tried to trace Ponzi's convoluted accounts to figure out how much money he had taken and where it had gone. They never did manage to untangle it, and could only conclude that millions had gone through his hands.
Ponzi was released in 1934 and was immediately deported to Italy since he never had become an American citizen. His flashy confidence had faded by that time, and when he left the prison gates he was met by an angry crowd. He told reporters before he left: "I went looking for trouble, and I found it." Rose stayed behind and later divorced him, as she did not want to leave Boston for his sake. However, they continued to exchange hopeful love letters up until Ponzi's death.
In Italy, Ponzi jumped from scheme to scheme but little came of them. He eventually got a cozy job in Brazil as an agent for Ala Littoria, the Italian state airline. However, during World War II, the Brazilians, who had sided with the Allies, realized the Italians were using the airline to ship strategic materials and shut it down.
Ponzi spent the last years of his life in poverty. He had a stroke in 1948, and died in a charity hospital in Rio de Janeiro on January 18, 1949. His life had been characterized by one great moment of glory surrounded by outlandish, wild ventures which inevitably lost him money. In the charity hospital, Ponzi granted one last interview to an American reporter, and commented about the wild ride he had given Bostonians: "Even if they never got anything for it, it was cheap at that price. Without malice aforethought I had given them the best show that was ever staged in their territory since the landing of the Pilgrims! It was easily worth fifteen million bucks to watch me put the thing over."