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

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF COIN SPINNING)

NICK FOUNTAIN, HOST:

Most of us in this world are destined to be forgotten. I know it's sad, but it's true. A lucky few will land in the history books. Fewer still might get our names on something - a road sign, a stadium, maybe even get a statue or a plaque. Probably the least likely scenario is to become so famous or infamous that our names will live on in language. Gerrymander, the word - named after Elbridge Gerry, 19th century governor of Massachusetts and early pioneer of the gerrymander. Saxophone - named after its inventor, Adolphe Sax.

And then, there's the Ponzi, the Ponzi scheme - named after Charles Ponzi. A Ponzi scheme is an investment opportunity that's more of a con. The way it works is you have to use - or steal - money from newer investors to pay back the earlier ones. They happen all the time these days. But I'm just going to come out and say it - most of the time, they're amateur hour compared to the one pulled off by Charles Ponzi, an Italian immigrant living in Boston, who pulled off his scheme for a brief seven months about a hundred years ago. He wasn't the first. He wouldn't be the biggest. But after you hear his story, you'll get it. You'll get why he's allowed to live on forever in infamy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEIGH MCALLISTER GRACIE'S "SMOKE AND MIRRORS")

FOUNTAIN: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Nick Fountain. Today on the show, the story of how Charles Ponzi stole millions of dollars and defrauded tens of thousands of people. Its way wilder than you think. It involves a daring plan to rob a bank, a system of speculating on currencies thanks to a loophole in the global mail system, and a very generous pound of flesh.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEIGH MCALLISTER GRACIE'S "SMOKE AND MIRRORS")

FOUNTAIN: A Ponzi - a word so familiar that it just rolls off the tongue, a shorthand for robbing Peter to pay Paul. And while his name has become infamous, the story of Charles Ponzi was not that well-known, that is, until journalist and author Mitch Zuckoff just kind of stumbled upon it.

MITCH ZUCKOFF: I was a banking reporter for a while at The Boston Globe, and I was at a press conference. And the state treasurer just offhandedly said, you know, banks haven't failed like this in Boston since Ponzi's day. And I did a - like, a comic double take of, huh? And he said, yeah, you knew Ponzi was based here in Boston. And I said, yeah, sure, I knew that. I'm a banking reporter. Of course, I knew that. You know, I had no idea.

FOUNTAIN: Mitch kind of became obsessed with Ponzi and wrote a book about him. It's called "Ponzi's Scheme: The True Story Of A Financial Legend." To write the book, Mitch went to Italy and found Ponzi's birth records. He read thousands of court documents. He found records of every single victim. And he read Ponzi's private letters. He also looked through a bunch of photos. There aren't many from when Ponzi's young, but in one, he's dressed in this three-piece suit with a tie. He has a pretty well-kept moustache, perfectly combed hair, and these big, thick eyebrows.

ZUCKOFF: And it's also worth mentioning that Ponzi is - he's diminutive. You know, he's a guy, like, 5-2 - I think he lied about being 5-3, you know?

FOUNTAIN: Classic. Yes.

ZUCKOFF: And so if Ponzi was going to make it, he understood he had to do it with his head.

FOUNTAIN: Uh-huh. Just 'cause he's a little guy.

ZUCKOFF: He's a little guy. Yeah.

FOUNTAIN: Maybe it was the height. Maybe it was something else. But throughout his life, Ponzi was always looking for the thing that was going to make him rich. He was the type to take big swings, big risks, that often involved leaps of faith. And in 1903, he did what many young Italians in search of riches were doing back then. He got on a boat to America. For the greater part of the next two decades, Ponzi tried to make his fortune. This guy had more jobs...

ZUCKOFF: (Laughter).

FOUNTAIN: ...And a more of a varied resume than anybody I've ever heard of. Can you just list off some of the jobs?

ZUCKOFF: Oh, boy. He worked in a bank. He was a translator. He was a mining camp nurse. He was a road roller. He was a sign painter. You know, on and on.

FOUNTAIN: Grocery clerk, factory hand, dishwasher, waiter, librarian.

ZUCKOFF: He was - you know, he was an itinerant immigrant, you know, rolling up and down the East coast of the United States, looking for work, and trying to find his place.

FOUNTAIN: And Ponzi's big-swings, high-risk, figure-out-the-details-later attitude - it wasn't just about getting rich. This one time, Mitch says, Ponzi was working at a mining camp in Appalachia when there was a terrible accident at a hospital. A nurse named Pearl was burned when a gas stove burst.

ZUCKOFF: He's sitting down for a beer with this doctor he knows at the mining camp. And he asks, you know, how's Pearl? And the doctor tells him, you know, it's pretty desperate. Gangrene is setting in. And so Ponzi says, how can you help her? And he says, maybe a skin graft. And, you know, he wanted to try it, but he couldn't find anyone who'd give up their skin to save this woman they didn't know at all. And Ponzi didn't really know her either. But in the moment, Ponzi said, how much do you need? How much skin do you need? And he said, well, probably 40 or 50 square inches.

FOUNTAIN: Wow.

ZUCKOFF: Ponzi said, you got him. I'll give you all the skin you need.

FOUNTAIN: Ponzi was on an operating table that evening. Doctors cut off 72 square inches of skin from his thighs. Later, he gave another 50 inches from his back. It was a classic Ponzi big swing. And it was risky. He ended up spending months in the hospital. But it paid off. The nurse, Pearl, she lived. It's an incredible story, and it doesn't fit the picture I have of Ponzi.

ZUCKOFF: I love that. I thought I was going to write about a guy who was just a schemer, who was just a snake. And the deeper I went, the more I felt sort of the stirrings of sympathy, the stirrings of empathy. And, you know, what he did was wrong. And what - you know, and I'm not confused by that. But I kind of understood the motivation of a guy who couldn't stop, as he put it, you know, the snowball once it started rolling downhill and not get rolled over by it.

FOUNTAIN: This next chapter of Ponzi's story is all about that snowball - how he got the idea that started it rolling and how he turned this big idea into a big scam that was hard to stop. And as his story unfolds, you're going to hear some obvious red flags in part because I'm going to point them out. I'm going to give the red flags these little rhymes. Here it goes.

By 1919, Ponzi had spent 15 years trying to make it in the U.S. He was living in Boston. He'd gotten married. He'd rented an office downtown right next to City Hall. And then, one day in August, he's going through the mail.

ZUCKOFF: He opens a letter, and out flutters this little - it almost looks like a dollar bill, but it's kind of squared. And it's an international reply coupon.

FOUNTAIN: An international reply coupon. What's that?

ZUCKOFF: An international reply coupon is basically - it's a coupon that enables you to buy a stamp in another country.

FOUNTAIN: It's actually a pretty clever solution to a problem. If you want to send a letter to, say, your nonna in Naples and you want to make it easier for her to respond with news from the motherland, what are you going to do? You can't send her U.S. stamps. You can't send her nickels. You can't send her an Italian lira because you're paid in dollars. Instead, you can send her an international reply coupon, which is like a voucher that you can buy at your local U.S. post office and she can redeem for an Italian stamp at her local Italian post office. It's an easy way to prepay for a reply. And what Ponzi realized sitting right there in his office was that these international reply coupons were a magical way to make money through arbitrage, that is, taking advantage of price differences to make an easy profit.

ZUCKOFF: He had what can only be described as a eureka moment, and he started doing sort of back-of-the-envelope calculations.

FOUNTAIN: See, this was just after the Great War and the great influenza, and the economies of Europe were in a bad place. Many of their currencies had been devalued. But the organization that set the going rate for these international reply coupons had not adjusted for inflation how much it cost to buy the coupons in different countries. And that meant, essentially, he could buy these coupons on sale in Europe.

ZUCKOFF: Yes. So a dollar could buy 20 of these coupons for 5 cents each in the United States. But because the value of the lira had been so devastated by the war...

FOUNTAIN: The Italian lira, yes.

ZUCKOFF: The Italian lira - you could buy more than three times as many of those in Italy.

FOUNTAIN: For the equivalent of a U.S. dollar.

ZUCKOFF: Correct. And so he realized that after expenses, he could make $2.30 for every dollar's worth of coupons he bought in Italy.

FOUNTAIN: Amazing profits. Perfect arbitrage opportunity.

ZUCKOFF: Sign me up. Yes, I want in. And it's legal.

FOUNTAIN: There are a few minor details that Ponzi can't quite figure out yet - for instance, how to sell these coupons or stamps for cash in the U.S. But he figures he can sell them in bulk to companies that send a lot of mail. There's also the transport problem. At scale, these might be kind of heavy. But he thinks, you know what? It's a good idea. I'll figure out the details later. Now is the time to take big swings. Now's the time to create a company.

ZUCKOFF: He goes right next door to City Hall, and he incorporates a business. And he calls it the Securities Exchange Company.

FOUNTAIN: The SEC. Why not? The Securities Exchange Commission won't be around for another decade and a half. Ponzi starts calling around the community to find people who will invest in his company. He tells them if they give him cash now, he'll be able to make a profit by buying and selling these stamp coupons and share a bunch of that profit with them. It's hard to pinpoint exactly when Ponzi's scheme turned into a scam, but you could argue that it was during these first few pitches because Ponzi was soliciting investments without figuring out those pesky details of how he would actually make money.

Ponzi got around this by giving out just enough information for people to think it was a brilliant idea. But when they asked him questions like, hey, how exactly are you going to sell these stamp coupon things for cash, he didn't tell them, well, I haven't worked that out yet. He'd say, well, that's the proprietary sauce. I can't tell you that. So here it is - red flag number one. Is there a secret sauce? Maybe? Get lost. Do not invest in something where you don't understand all the details. Ponzi knew that people wouldn't care, though. He had them in a trance. And then he'd lean in for the kill.

ZUCKOFF: He would say, you know, what are the banks paying you? If you put your money in a bank, they're going to give you - what? - 2%, maybe 3% a year? I can give you 50% interest in 90 days. In three months, your hundred dollars will be $150. And that's the moment he knew that a calculation was happening in his client's head. Is this too good to be true, or is this too good to miss?

FOUNTAIN: Too good to be true or too good to miss.

ZUCKOFF: That's how I see all of this. How could he possibly give me 50% interest in 90 days? But if it's true, if this is possible, this is my ship coming in.

FOUNTAIN: This is red flag number two, and maybe the biggest red flag of all. Regular returns - you're going to get burned because the world isn't regular. Some years are good. Some are bad. And investments that promise amazing returns every year - they're sketchy. But Ponzi's investors didn't pick up on this. People started pouring dozens, then thousands, at some point, a million dollars a week into Ponzi's postal-coupon fake business. And Mitch says to understand how Ponzi conned tens of thousands of people, you got to remember, he started his scheme in December of 1919, right on the cusp of the Roaring '20s.

ZUCKOFF: You know, I call it - this is the first roar of the 1920s. The idea that anything was possible had permeated not just the upper class, but to the newest immigrant, yes, great riches were available here.

FOUNTAIN: So people were primed for this. They had heard stories of getting rich quick. And so it seemed plausible.

ZUCKOFF: When I was doing the research on Ponzi, I spent a lot of time just reading what else was in the paper, and it was incredible. It was an entire genre of stories of sudden wealth that, you know, subconsciously or consciously were playing into Ponzi's hands.

FOUNTAIN: Like, space-filler, or these were prominently featured?

ZUCKOFF: Prominently featured - oh, front page stories again...

FOUNTAIN: Really?

ZUCKOFF: ...And again about, oh, you know, marrying into wealth. You know, she rose from char girl to - you know, to grande dame, you know? And, clearly, people wanted to read it.

FOUNTAIN: This might as well be red flag number three for an investment scheme. Beware the unrealistic expectations of quick wealth creation because this everyone's getting rich quick; why not me? feeling - it's not just a 1920s phenomena. It pops up whenever the economy is popping off. Whenever you see your neighbors getting rich, you get jealous, and you want in. For Ponzi, business was booming, but, remember, he never figured out those details. He never used investor money to buy postal coupons. Instead, when investors came back to his office looking to recoup their investment, he just paid them with the new money from new investors. This robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul scheme is what's now known as a Ponzi.

Sometimes regulators catch on to these schemes, but oftentimes Ponzi's pop up in areas that are new or not regulated too much, which is red flag number four. If you're in the sticks, be careful with your picks. And postal policy was quite the hinterland. Regulators started poking around Ponzi's business. But they were kind of stumped. For instance, the first regulator that came around to ask questions was a state bureaucrat. He explained he was in charge of making sure that loan sharks weren't charging too much interest. But Ponzi said, no, you have it backwards. I'm the one who has to pay out these big returns. I'm the one who's going to pay out 50%. The bureaucrat's like, oh, yeah. You're right. You're not a loan shark. You're the opposite. I guess, good day, sir.

ZUCKOFF: Basically, he goes back to his little cubbyhole at the state house, and, you know, he sort of tells the police, well, just keep an eye on this guy, and he passes the buck, so to speak.

FOUNTAIN: Did the Boston Police keep their eye on him?

ZUCKOFF: Mostly to invest. Yeah. Two-thirds of the Boston Police Department were investing in Ponzi.

FOUNTAIN: No.

ZUCKOFF: Yes.

FOUNTAIN: Two-thirds of the Boston Police?

ZUCKOFF: Yes.

FOUNTAIN: The police weren't going to do anything about it. Some of them even worked for Ponzi as salesmen. The regulators who probably visited Ponzi's operation the most were the postal inspectors. But try as they might, they could not figure out how Ponzi was making money on this stamp-coupon arbitrage. Of course, that's because Ponzi hadn't figured that out either. So Ponzi's scheme got bigger and bigger. At its peak in July of 1920, seven months after he started taking investments, Ponzi took in nearly $6 1/2 million from 20,000 investors in a single month. He had a nice mansion. He had a limo. He was on the front page of newspapers. After the break, how Ponzi luck eventually ran out, just like almost every Ponzi ever. Remember, to keep up his stamp coupon scheme, Ponzi needed a constant stream of new investors - in fact, more investors than before to pay the earlier investors their profit, that 50%. Things started to turn when someone sued Ponzi. They said they were part owner of the company. Ponzi said, no, you just gave me a loan that I paid off a long time ago. But in the meantime, a court decided to freeze a bunch of Ponzi's bank accounts while they figured it all out. And this causes a minipanic. Mitch says thousands of investors showed up at Ponzi's office. It's like a scene of a bank run. They're all demanding their money back.

ZUCKOFF: People are excited, and they're anxious, and they're afraid. And people are pushing and shoving. And Ponzi wades into the crowd. And incredibly, it calms them. And he survives the run. Things settle down. He pays off everyone who is seeking their return.

FOUNTAIN: But then, state and federal regulators decide to take a second look at his business. Ponzi meets with them and tells them, you know what? I'm above board. I'm so above board, I'll let you check my books. You can even pick the auditor. This is a stall tactic, and it's a problem. For one, Ponzi has been spending a lot - on his new mansion, that limo, but also on stakes in legitimate businesses. He's even become part owner of multiple banks.

And the second problem is he never figured out how to make money off the stamp thing. So he can't come up with the money he owes to all his investors. Ponzi is getting desperate. He knows that there is going to be this moment. The auditor will count up all his debts, and Ponzi will have to show all the money that he actually has. This is the show-me-the-money moment, when people could realize that he doesn't have all the money to pay his investors back. And Ponzi, ever the hustler, thinks up a plan that's both daring and pretty extraordinary.

ZUCKOFF: He's going to gather up all his bank books, all his cash, and go, from his office - and he's going to make a stop before he goes over to the auditor's office a few blocks away. He's going to stop at one of the banks he purchased. He has this idea that he is going to gain access to the vault of the Hanover Trust Bank. And he's going to - what should we say? - borrow a few million dollars from the vaults, go over to the auditor, show all of this money, and then return to the bank, take the money...

FOUNTAIN: Going to temporarily rob his own bank.

ZUCKOFF: That's one way to put it. That is correct.

FOUNTAIN: (Laughter).

ZUCKOFF: I'm not saying it's a great plan, Nick, but it's a plan.

FOUNTAIN: The Massachusetts bank regulator, he senses something fishy is up. He starts asking the banks, hey, how much does Ponzi have in his accounts anyways? And the bankers tell him, well, not that much, actually. So the regulator arranges a stakeout.

ZUCKOFF: So he starts literally having guys watching the bank that Ponzi is withdrawing money from most aggressively. And they see that there are Ponzi guys coming to make withdrawals to collect cash. They realize this is the moment. They figure there's no way there can be any cash left in that account 'cause there were only a few thousand dollars left. And so they pounce, and they declare him hopelessly insolvent and hopelessly overdrawn.

FOUNTAIN: And this is the end of the road for Ponzi's scheme. The auditor finally finishes his work. Ponzi owes about $7 million, probably more, but he only has about $4 million. The con can't go on any longer. He turns himself in.

Did he do time?

ZUCKOFF: He did. He spent much of the 1920s in prison, behind bars, on various charges, all related to these few months of glory.

FOUNTAIN: Charles Ponzi eventually ended up in Brazil. He died in the charity ward of a hospital with 75 bucks to his name, which went to his burial. But we all know his name all because of a brief seven months where he was in the right place at the right, frothy economic time with the right pitch.

Why do you think it was that his scheme, his company, his Ponzi grew so fast?

ZUCKOFF: You know, I think there's always, you know, a fear of missing out.

FOUNTAIN: FOMO, yeah.

ZUCKOFF: FOMO, right. It's a real thing. FOMO is real. And so financial FOMO, it, you know, cuts even deeper. You're not just missing a party. You fear of missing out on the ship that was supposed to come in to change your life and to change your family's life. And so, you know, that is part of human nature that Ponzi, or people like him, exploit.

FOUNTAIN: It's unclear when exactly Ponzi's name became a generic term for the con he pulled off. But one thing's for sure, it's going to stay that way because Ponzis keep happening. It's human nature. FOMO is a new word, but it's a timeless emotion. So if you'll oblige me, I have one final red flag. Fear of missing out? Don't forget to doubt. (Laughter) Maybe not.

Do you have a long-lost bit of economic or finance history? Email us at planetmoney@npr.org or find us on the socials or send a snail mail. Send me a postcard. Nick Fountain, NPR, 9909 West Jefferson Blvd., Culver City, Calif., 90232.

Today's show was produced by the great James Sneed, who is going to bring his greatness to the podcast Code Switch for a few months. That's NPR's podcast about race and identity. Don't forget about us, James. We're going to miss you so much. This episode was fact-checked by Sierra Juarez, mastered by Natasha Branch, and edited by Jess Jiang. I'm Nick Fountain. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRUNO HUNGER AND GREGOR HUBER'S "DROID MARCH")

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