“The greatest Italian of them all”
Born on 3 March 1882, Ponzi emigrated from Italy to the United States in 1901 and his first scam was quite small.
He learned that international postal reply coupons in some countries could be bought at below face value. If taken to the United States they could be resold at a profit of up to 50 per cent. He made $1,250 from his work. His next scam in June 1919 upped the stakes and offered investors a 50 per cent return on their money after three months, a period he later cut to 45 days after he began making $200,000 a day.
As people invested, Ponzi used that money to pay off his investors and also treated himself to a few gewgaws, including two dozen diamond stickpins, 48 Malacca canes with gold handles and 200 suits, plus a substantial portfolio of real estate.
His clients labelled him “the greatest Italian of them all”. On 26 July 1920 the Boston Globe published a story stating that Ponzi was not the clean-cut businessman he appeared to be and had served prison time in Canada for cheque frauds in 1905 and people-smuggling in Atlanta, Georgia in 1908. His scheme began to crumble especially when it became apparent that there were not enough international postal reply coupons in the world to meet his needs. The shortfall was reported to be between $5 million and $10 million.
Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Ponzi paid out $15 million of the $20 million he had taken and, on 1 November 1920, he pleaded guilty to mail fraud. He was sentenced to five years in federal prison, serving his term in Plymouth Prison. Ponzi was freed on appeal in 1925 but was soon arrested when he tried to con real estate investors. He was jailed again in 1926 for nine years for the new and old scams. On his release he moved to Brazil where he worked for an airline and ran a hot dog stall. He died in Rio de Janeiro on 18 January 1949.