15 of the Most Brazen Ponzi Schemes in Business History
By Alex Palmer
Since the 2008 financial collapse, Americans have become all too familiar with the concept of Ponzi schemes: A savvy swindler convinces hopeful investors to give him their money, guarantees big returns, then uses the funds from new investors to cut checks to those who’ve already paid in (while keeping most of the money for personal use). Eventually, if financial conditions worsen or if too many investors try to cash in, the house of cards comes crashing down. The scheme is astonishingly common, and clever hucksters have found some creative plots—from mythical lands to racing pigeons—to attract willing investors. Here are 15 of the most remarkable.
1. CHARLES PONZI
The namesake of the scam was an Italian-born businessman living in Boston in the early 20th century who convinced investors that profits could be made by purchasing international reply coupons (IRC) in Europe and redeeming them in the United States, profiting off the exchange rate. He and an aggressive team of solicitors were soon pulling in a quarter-million dollars a day, based on promises of 50% profit in only 45 days. Six months into the scam things started unraveling when the head of Dow Jones & Company noted that for the scheme to work, there would have to be millions of IRCs in circulation, which would overwhelm the supply. By the time the scam was exposed and Ponzi was charged with 86 counts of mail fraud, his investors had lost $20 million ($237 million today).
2. BERNARD MADOFF
In one of the largest accounting frauds in U.S. history, Bernie Madoff made off with $17 billion of investments in his phony hedge fund, claiming consistent, above-market returns that kept prominent charities, banks, and people ranging from Sandy Koufax to Kevin Bacon paying into the scheme. Though a number of investigations had raised concerns about the operation, it was not until the financial crisis of 2008, as investors began withdrawing their billions, that Madoff was forced to admit it was all a lie.
3. GERALD PAYNE
In the mid-1990s, Pastor Gerald Payne urged the spiritually minded to invest in his Greater Ministries International church, which he promised would double investors’ money in 17 months by trading in precious metals, gems, and foreign currencies. The congregation heard his call and some 18,000 people supplied Payne and his wife with at least $20 million. He got away with it for a while by cashing checks below the IRS’s $10,000 reporting limit, but soon enough he was exposed and in 2001 was convicted and given 27 years in prison.
4. GOD’S MONEY
Another godly grifter, Gary Gauthier hosted Tampa radio show It’s God’s Money, which he used to evangelize the impressive returns true believers could get by spending their money on his Florida real estate projects. He was eventually arrested in 2014 for bilking 38 faithful Floridians of some $6 million.
5. THE PIGEON KING
In a very strange variant of the typical Ponzi set-up, Arlan Galbraith targeted highly religious groups in Canada, including the Amish and Mennonites, with a scheme in which they would pay to raise pigeons, which were then sold for pigeon racing, enjoying lucrative returns on the buybacks (as much as $500 a pair). The folksy Galbraith, who would often conduct interviews in overalls and compared himself to Steve Jobs, pulled in $42 million between 2004 and 2008 before he was exposed.
6. ANT APHRODISIACS
China’s Wang Fengyou may top the Pigeon King when it comes to crazy get-rich-quick schemes. In 1999, he founded the Yilishen Tianxi Group, which provided farmers with a box of “special ants” in exchange for 10,000 yuan (about $1,500). The farmers were supposed to spritz the ants with a honey and sugar solution daily. After 74 days, the ants would be picked up and ground into an aphrodisiac, providing the farmers with more than 30% returns. Unlike a number of schemers who never actually created the products they claimed to, Wang’s ant-phrodisiacs were sold in some 80,000 pharmacies across China before the whole thing was exposed as bogus.
7. MILKING INVESTORS
South African entrepreneur Adriaan Nieuwoudt began marketing a beauty product that used “kubus”—an ingredient supposedly based on his grandmother’s milk cultures—in 1984. Interested investors would be sent dried-plant activator kits that they could grow at home themselves, selling the grown cultures back to Nieuwoudt’s company. It turned out there was no actual beauty product and the cultures would simply be ground up and sent to the new investors. After tons of milk culture were found rotting in a shed, the scheme was declared an illegal lottery by the South African government and he had to close up shop.
8. RUSSIA’S MADOFF
In the 1990s, Sergei Mavrodi took advantage of Russia’s ill-defined financial regulations following the fall of communism, launching MMM, which began as an importer of office furniture before moving into investments with promises of as much as 2000% returns. He was eventually found guilty of defrauding some 10,000 investors of about $4.3 million. After serving a brief prison stint, he returned to pyramid scheming with the launch of MMM-2011.
9. BOY BAND SCAM
Though Lou Pearlman gained fame in the 1990s for producing boy bands like *NSYNC and The Backstreet Boys, it would turn out he was guilty of much more than questionable music taste. For more than 15 years, a pair of companies he invented—complete with fake financial statements—would bring in more than $300 million in investments before he was found out in 2006.
10. HIGH-YIELD HOTEL ROOMS
From 1999 to 2005, Michael Eugene Kelly managed to pull in almost half a billion dollars from elderly and retired people who thought they were investing in time-shares. They could either stay in the hotel rooms for one week out of the year, or lease them at a return rate of 11%—and every investor chose the latter option. The funds from new investors were used to make these “rental payments.” Kelly was found out and charged by the SEC in 2007, and eventually sentenced to five years of prison before dying behind bars.
11. PETTERS GROUP WORLDWIDE
Tom Petters began as a legitimate businessman, with operations that included Polaroid Corp and Sun Country Airlines. But between 1995 and 2008, as part of his Petters Group Worldwide, he began pulling in money from investors who believed they were buying consumer electronics that would be sold to big box retail stores at a profit. There was never any electronic equipment, no interested big box stores, and all documents were faked. In the end, Petters was found guilty of a $3.65 billion Ponzi scheme and sentenced to 50 years in prison.
12. REED SLATKIN
Another sometimes-legitimate businessman, Slatkin co-founded EarthLink while also running a fraudulent “investment club” for 15 years, beginning in 1986. It promised investors better-than-market returns and attracted prominent victims, including actors Joe Pantoliano and Giovanni Ribisi and news anchor Greta Van Susteren. But he didn’t keep all the money for himself: Slatkin donated millions to the Church of Scientology, for which he served as a minister (the church eventually paid the money back). In 2003 he was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison.
13. GREENWOOD AND WALSH
Between 1996 and 2009 money managers Paul Greenwood and Stephen Walsh attracted high-end investors from educational groups like Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh to their firms, Westridge Capital and WG Trading Company. Former owners in a stake of the Islanders hockey team, among the extravagances the two bought with their ill-gotten funds were a 54-acre riding school and horse farm, and an $80,000 collection of Steiff teddy bears.
14. POYAIS LAND SCAM
National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Posing as the prince (or “Cazique”) of the Central American territory of Poyais (in what is Honduras today), the Scottish adventurer Gregor MacGregor convinced London’s elites to invest millions in Poyaisian government bonds for a stake in the tropical paradise. Some 250 eager settlers even headed to the bucolic getaway around 1820, before realizing the whole place was MacGregor’s invention. While the investors lost their money, 180 of the would-be settlers lost their lives in the disastrous expedition.
15. BAYANO RIVER SYNDICATE
About a century after MacGregor, a Chicagoan named Leo Koretz devised his own mythical land, selling stock in a place called Bayano River, in Panama, from where he claimed great amounts of oil were being extracted. Unlike MacGregor, who told anyone who would listen about his investment opportunity, Koretz kept his scam exclusive. He offered only limited amounts of stock and only to those deemed worthy. It only made his offering more desirable, and he became the toast of Chicago before a group of eager investors set out to view their Bayano holdings themselves, and discovered no oil wells or anything else. Koretz was sentenced to a decade in prison, which he cut short in 1925 after eating an entire box of candy gifted from one of his girlfriends (a diabetic, Koretz would have known that so much sugar would mean a quick death).
All images courtesy of Getty Images unless otherwise noted.