There have been many famous Ponzi schemes throughout history, and especially in recent years. These fraudulent investments have affected everyone, from the poor elderly to rich Hollywood stars alike. The most disturbing thing about the Ponzi schemes in recent years are that they are carried out by some incredibly brilliant businessmen, who know that their plans aren’t sustainable. If these men focused their energy on legitimate endeavors, they’d probably succeed and not ruin their own lives, as well as the lives of others. Here are ten of the most shocking Ponzi schemes ever. Some you might know and some you may have never heard of, but the all the facts and figures will certainly surprise you.
10 Charles Ponzi
Charles Ponzi was the man who started it all. In the 1920’s, Ponzi promised investors a whopping 50% return in 45 days, or 100% in 90 days on of all things, international postal coupons, which he never actually purchased. He earned $15 million and became a millionaire in only six months. When Ponzi was caught one year later, investors received a mere $5 million back. He was charged with 86 counts of mail fraud and sentenced to 5 years. During his time in federal prison, he was prosecuted again in Massachusetts, but Ponzi claimed double jeopardy and his case went to the Supreme Court. He was then sentenced to seven to nine years in state prison. After Ponzi was released, he launched another scheme, where he sold real estate that was literally underwater. Not surprisingly, the namesake schemer was jailed yet again, and ultimately died penniless in Brazil, working as a translator.
9 Lou Pearlman
If the name Lou Pearlman sounds familiar, it’s because he was one of the hottest music producers in the 90’s, having worked with 'NSYNC, LFO and The Backstreet Boys. In addition to producing music, he also produced one of the biggest and longest-running Ponzi schemes in US history, having stolen more than $300 million. For over 20 years, Pearlman convinced individuals and corporations to invest in two companies that only existed on paper. He also created fake financial statements to secure bank loans. In 2008, Pearlman was convicted of money laundering, conspiracy and making false statements during a bankruptcy proceeding. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
8 Michael Eugene Kelly
Michael Eugene Kelly ran a massive Ponzi scheme, defrauding nearly 8,000 investors, mostly retired or elderly people out of about $500 million. This was not a traditional Ponzi scheme because most Ponzi schemes leave nothing left to return to its victims, whereas Kelly had millions of dollars of real estate and other assets. Kelly’s scheme consisted of creating “universal leases” which payed high commissions to brokers who sold what were basically time-share investments. Investors could stay in the hotel rooms for one week a year or use another company, which was not surprisingly owned by Kelly, to lease the rooms at an annual return rate of 11%. Every single investor chose this option. Kelly remained in Federal Custody from 2006-2012, when he was released under house arrest pending a $10 million bond signed by his family members, so he could receive treatment for colon cancer. Kelly died in 2013.
7 Gerald Payne
When someone runs a church, it’s safe to say that this person is a man of God, but sometimes that God is the almighty dollar. In the mid 1990’s, Pastor Gerald Payne ran Greater Ministries International, where his greatest accomplishment was bilking 18,000 people out of approximately $20 million. How did he get these devoted churchgoers to hand over their cash? Well, it wasn't through passing around a basket. Using scripture, he told the members of the church that if they invested with him and the church, they could double their money. Payne got away with his scheme for a while by cashing checks written for under the $10,000 reporting limit, but ultimately, the IRS caught-on and traced it back to Payne and his wife’s checking account. Payne claimed the cash wasn't invested, but gifted and that their first Amendment rights as a church were violated. Payne was sentenced to 27 years in prison and his wife, Betty, was sentenced to just less than 13 years.
6 Scott Rothstein
Scott Rothstein is currently serving a 50-year prison sentence, for a $1.4 billion Ponzi scheme. The largest Ponzi schemer in the history of Florida, the now disbarred lawyer Rothstein lived a very flashy lifestyle, owning over 200 luxury watches, Bugattis and other cars, as well as doing his business on his very own golden toilet. Rothstein convinced investors to purchase fabricated structured settlements. Investors were guaranteed a return of at least 20% in 3 months. On January 27, 2010, he pleaded guilty to 5 federal crimes. During the investigation, his wife, Kim tried to hide jewelry and other assets, but she too was found, and was forced to serve 1.5 years in prison.
5 Gary Gauthier
Gary Gauthier hosted a radio show called, It’s God’s Money, in Tampa. It probably wasn’t God’s intention to have him steal $6 million from 38 senior citizens in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties. He promised his victims an 8%-40% return on investments in real estate. Gauthier lured his victims by telling listeners to call him, and he would set up a personal meeting at their homes or at his office. The scheme lasted from 2005-2010. To increase his legitimacy, investors (who presumably received a return) would call into the radio show and talk, and talk about how they got rich quick. Ultimately, Gauthier was charged with a laundry list of charges, from racketeering to security fraud.
4 Adriaan Nieuwoudt
In 1984, South African entrepreneur, Adriaan Nieuwoudt decided to market a beauty product based on an ingredient found in his grandmother’s milk-based cultures, known as “kubus." Nieuwoudt sold off dried-plant “activator” kits to investors, so they could grow the milk cultures themselves in a “work at home” type scheme. They'd sell the grown cultures back to the company and in turn, would be used as an ingredient for this beauty product that didn't actually exist. Didn't anyone wonder why the company didn't just grow the culture themselves, instead of selling the kits? Furthermore, this entire operation sounds unsanitary. While the scheme sounds sort of legitimate, the problem was that only one unit per week would be bought back, regardless of how many activator kits were purchased. Nieuwoudt was finally stopped when the operation was declared an illegal lottery by the South African government.
3 Tom Petters
Tom Petters ran a $3.65 billion Ponzi scheme, where investors funded non-existent electronic goods, to sell to big box retailers who weren't buying them. A successful legitimate businessman, Petters owned many well-known large companies, including Fingerhut and Polaroid, which made him appear trustworthy in the eyes of investors. On Decemeber 2, 2009, Petters was charged with 20 counts of fraud, including money laundering, wire fraud and mail fraud. He is currently serving a 50-year prison sentence in a federal facility in Leavenworth, Kansas. Petters’ was the largest frauder the state of Minnesota had ever seen.
2 Reed Slatkin
Reed Slatkin was the co-founder of technology company, Earthlink and a Scientology Minister. Beginning in 1986, Slatkin ran a Ponzi scheme for fifteen years, through an unlicensed “investment club,” where he promised a 24% return. He stole $592 million from nearly 800 people, guilty of 15 counts of fraud, conspiracy and money laundering. Many of Slatkin’s victims were also Scientologists and includes news anchor, Greta Van Susteren and Pearl Harbor producer, Armyan Bernstein. Slatkin served his sentence and was released from a half-way house, in July 2013.
1 Bernie Madoff
Bernie Madoff is presumably the most famous Ponzi schemer, other than Ponzi himself, operating the largest fraud in US history. Madoff stole $65 billion from investors and committed over 11 federal felonies. Madoff lived a flashy, luxurious life by most standards, but less so than, for example, Scott Rothstein. Madoff received the maximum sentence of 150 years in prison, which he is currently serving in Raleigh, North Carolina. Madoff ran a wealth management company in New York, which started as a legitimate business, but ultimately turned the entire business into one giant Ponzi scheme. His son, Mark, who worked with him, claimed not to be involved in the fraud, but committed suicide in December 2010. HBO is currently making a movie about Madoff based on the book, The Wizard of Lies.