Charles Ponzi

Charles Ponzi (March 3, 1882 – January 18, 1949) was an Italian swindler, who is considered one of the greatest swindlers in American history. His aliases include Charles Ponei, Charles P. Bianchi, Carl and Carlo. The term "Ponzi scheme" is a widely known description of any scam that pays early investors returns from the investments of later investors. He promised clients a 50% profit within 45 days, or 100% profit within 90 days, by buying discounted postal reply coupons in other countries and redeeming them at face value in the United States as a form of arbitrage. Ponzi was probably inspired by the scheme of William F. Miller, a Brooklyn bookkeeper who in 1899 used the same scheme to take in $1 million.

 Early life:
Parts of Charles Ponzi's life are somewhat difficult to determine, due to his propensity to fabricate and embellish facts. He was born Carlo Pietro Giovanni Guglielmo Tebaldo Ponzi in Lugo, Italy in 1882. He told The New York Times that he had come from a well-to-do family in Parma, Italy. 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.

Arrival in America:
On November 15, 1903, he arrived in Boston 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.

Ponzi aka "Charles Bianchi" under arrest circa 1910In 1907, Ponzi moved to Montreal and became an assistant teller in the newly opened Banco Zarossi, a bank started by Luigi "Louis" Zarossi to service the influx of Italian immigrants arriving in the city. Zarossi paid 6% interest on bank deposits - double the going rate at the time - and was growing rapidly as a result. He eventually rose to bank manager. However, 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 Canadian Warehousing and, finding no one there, wrote himself a check for $423.58 in a checkbook he found, forging the signature of a director of the company, Damien Fournier. 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 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. Here he became a translator for the warden, who was intercepting letters from mobster Ignazio "Lupo the Wolf" Saietta. Ponzi ended up befriending Lupo. However it was another prisoner who became a true role model to Ponzi: Charles W. Morse. Morse, a wealthy Wall Street businessman and speculator, fooled doctors during medical exams, poisoning himself by eating soap shavings, toxins that left his body as quickly as the doctors left his bedside. Morse was soon released from prison. Ponzi completed his prison term the summer following Morse's release, having an additional month added to his term due to his inability to pay a $500 fine.

Origin of the term "Ponzi Scheme"

When Ponzi was released from prison, he eventually made his way back to Boston. There he met Rose Maria Gnecco, a stenographer, whom he asked to marry. Though Ponzi did not tell Gnecco about his years in jail, his mother sent Gnecco a letter telling her of Ponzi's past. Nonetheless, she married him in 1918. For the next few months, he worked at a number of businesses, including his father-in-law's grocery, before hitting upon an idea to sell advertising in a large business listing to be sent to various businesses. Ponzi 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 catalog. Inside the envelope was an International reply coupon (IRC), something which he had never seen before. He asked about it and found a weakness in the system which would, in theory, 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. IRCs 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 World War I had greatly 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 of higher value, which could then be sold. 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 profiting by buying an asset at a lower price in one market and immediately selling it in a market where the price is higher, which is not illegal.

Seeing an opportunity, Ponzi quit his translator's job to set his scheme in motion. He borrowed money and sent it back to relatives in Italy with instructions to buy postal coupons and send them to him. However, when he tried to redeem them, he ran into an avalanche of red tape.

Undaunted, 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.

Soon afterward, Ponzi started his own company, the "Old Colony Foreign Exchange Company,"[4] 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).

He began depositing the money in the Hanover Trust Bank of Boston (a small bank on Hanover Street in the mostly Italian North End), in the hope 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, buy a controlling interest in the bank (through himself and several friends) after depositing $3 million. 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. In fact, new money was the only way Ponzi had to pay off those investors, as he made no effort to generate legitimate profits.

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. She died soon afterward.