Who was Ponzi -- what the heck was his scheme?
Anyone can work a simple swindle, but you have to be a special kind of con man to have your name become synonymous with"fraud." Ponzi pulled it off, though. After arriving in the U.S. from Italy in 1903, Ponzi knocked around in a variety of unskilled jobs that usually ended when he got into trouble for theft or cheating customers.
A few years later, he moved to Canada, where he spent a hitch in prison for passing a forged check. When he eventually drifted back down to the U.S., he needed a way to make some quick cash.
Ponzi eventually found his way to get rich quick using a vagary of the postal system. At the time, it was common for letters abroad to include an international reply coupon -- a voucher that could be exchanged for minimum postage back to the country from which the letter was sent.
Thus, if you sent your buddy in France a letter, you could include a coupon so he could respond. (This practice still exists but is less common.) As exchange and postal rates fluctuated, though, there was an opportunity to make a profit. You only had to purchase postal reply coupons cheaply in some foreign country, send them back to the U.S. to swap them out for American stamps of a higher value, then sell these stamps.
This arrangement was perfectly legal; it was just cleverly gaming the system. Ponzi started buying and selling postal reply coupons using agents in his native Italy, and he was making a good living doing it.
Unfortunately, whatever defect made Ponzi steal from his employers and pass bad checks prompted him to get greedy here, too. He started to recruit investors into his system with the promise of 50 percent returns in just a few days. Investors would pay their cash in, and sure enough, Ponzi would get them the promised return.
Everyone was happy with the results, and word started to spread about this Italian financial wizard. Within two years, he had employees all over the country recruiting new takers for this foolproof investment strategy.
Ponzi was pocketing millions, and he enjoyed a sumptuous life outside of
Boston. At his peak, Ponzi was raking in $250,000 a day, which enabled him
to collect such necessities as gold-handled canes. He became a celebrity
investor, almost like the Warren Buffett of his day.
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