Charles Ponzi's immortal financial scam : Planet Money Some of history's biggest financial scams owe their name to Charles Ponzi. Here's the story of the man behind the eponymous scheme.

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Charles Ponzi's scheme

Charles Ponzi's scheme

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Alton H. Blackington Collection, Robert S. Cox Special Collections and University Archives Research Center, UMass Amherst Libraries.
Charles Ponzi, 1920.
Alton H. Blackington Collection, Robert S. Cox Special Collections and University Archives Research Center, UMass Amherst Libraries.

Charles Ponzi was down on his luck. In 1919, the Italian immigrant had spent a decade and a half in the U.S. He was looking for a way to get rich and tried his hand at everything — including bookkeeping, sign painting, grocery clerk, dishwasher, and librarian.

He caught a lucky break in August, when he received a letter from Europe. In the envelope was an International Reply Coupon, a clever way to prepay for international postage. Ponzi realized he might be able to use these coupons to make his fortune. All he needed was investors.

What happened next made him a household name. This is the story of the man behind the eponymous Ponzi scheme — a tale of financial fraud that lives up to its linguistic legacy. And we have a Planet Money guide on how to avoid being scammed:

  • Is there a secret Sauce? Maybe get lost! — Don't invest in something if you don't fully understand the details. 
  • Regular returns? You might get burned!  — The business cycle isn't regular. Be cautious around an investment that promises regular (above average) returns. 
  • Beware unrealistic expectations... of quick wealth creation!  — Scams can proliferate in economic boom times. 
  • If you're in the 'sticks,' be careful with your picks! — Scams tend to pop up in areas that are unregulated. 
  • Fear of missing out? Don't forget to doubt! — Don't let financial FOMO disarm your skepticism.  

Note: the SEC also has a (less cute) guide to avoiding Ponzi scams.

This episode was produced by James Sneed. It was fact checked by Sierra Juarez, mastered by Natasha Branch, and edited by Jess Jiang. It's based on the book Ponzi's Scheme, by Mitchell Zuckoff.

Music: "Smoke And Mirrors," "Tumbleweeds" and "Droid March."

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