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"Sic transit gloria mundi." Translation 
Charles Ponzi, when convicted of fraud

Get Bob and Alice to both lend you money. Give Alice her money back, with the addition of some really good "interest" you took out of Bob's loan. Stall Bob. Go back to Alice a little later and see whether she can steer you toward a bigger loan. Alice can. In fact, she'll do it herself. She remembers that big payoff. Pay Bob with some interest you took out of Alice's latest loan, leaving Bob with a big smile. Wash, rinse, repeat. Echo the dollars back and forth between these two until one of them is comfortable with a really huge loan. Pocket the money, change your name, and move to another city.

That's the core of a Ponzi scheme, making one mark's investment work to make another mark feel comfortable. Named after Charles Ponzi, who became famously rich using this scheme in 1920. He later became an economic advisor to Benito Mussolini, which might explain a few things about Fascist Italy.

Most Ponzi schemes use many more than two people, and in fact depend on a constant rotation to create an illusion of wealth and payoff, and an influx of new people who haven't been scared away by the rising costs. Indeed, a common name for Ponzi schemes is "rob Peter to pay Paul", as the principle is the same — except that today's Peter is tomorrow's Paul until this grows unsustainable. May also be referred to as a Pyramid Scheme, although technically that's a different kind of scam.note  The largest example ever was the $64.8 billion (in pretend money, anyway) collapse of the firm of Bernie Madoff, whose purported hedge fund operation was actually a classic Ponzi scheme.

As pointed out by Mitch Zuckoff (biographer of Charles Ponzi), an interesting thing about Ponzi schemers is that they have a tendency to buy into their own hype and would often try to keep the scheme going long after the "the-pyramid-is-already-falling-skip-town-immediately" date. Which, funnily enough, makes them easier to catch than regular run-of-the-mill hucksters (not that it does the victims any good).

Goes without saying, many Ripped from the Headlines storylines soon followed in the aftermath of Madoff's arrest. Similar strategies are used at corporate levels, as companies have been known to accept funding for multiple projects, use ALL the money to get one of them off the ground and hopefully get it to market with revenue back before the investors start asking questions about the status of their project. Especially common in the video game industry, and compare Ash Can Copy.

A Sister Trope to Get-Rich-Quick Scheme. Not related to a Fonzie scheme, which involves wacky hijinks for half an hour. Also has nothing to do with Pon and Zi.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • In Heavy Object the Wendigo Vehicle Group got started when its founder leveraged a number of fake property and mineral deeds to buy out a company with actual assets which he then used to buy more companies. This was so successful that he was able to become one of the 7th Core, the ruling body of the Capitalist Enterprise. Silk Spider, a con artist, took over as the founder's secretary and insulated him from the company. While maintaining Wendigo's standing as a major company, she sold off all of the company's assets while also selling bogus stocks, massively enriching herself.
  • Multi Level Marketing schemesnote  are mentioned/shown several times in Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei, and the Punny Name of one of the students, who engages in shady business practices references this type of scheme.
  • In Welcome to the NHK, Satou is sucked into a multilevel marketing scheme by an old friend of his. Misaki and Yamazaki force him to confront his friend to get out of it, only to be suckered in themselves.

    Fan Works 
  • In The Weaver Option the Chaos Gods are able to exploit the Warp's temporal mutability in order to feed on souls and acts that don't exist at the moment. This in turn allows them to have sufficient strength to position themselves in order to generate more souls to feed upon. However there is a caveat to this in that the possibility of a soul existing must never become zero as it would cause a paradox. Slaanesh runs afoul of this when Taylor launches a raid on Commorragh whose denizens, especially Asbrudael Vect, represent a major source of future souls. Entire legions of daemons cease to have ever existed as the battle progresses and Slaanesh weakens drastically.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • About Schmidt has Randall, the fiancee of the daughter of the protagonist Warren Schmidt, try to entice the latter into buying on an investment opportunity. Schmidt, being an experienced actuary who is meticulous about avoiding poor choices in investment and high levels of risk, is skeptical of joining. Randall doesn't even mention what kind of product the opportunity is tied to. A few weeks later, Schmidt waits for the perfect opportunity of when to ask Randall how did the opportunity go: at a dinner table with Randall's friends and family. Randall's brother reveals that it was a pyramid scheme that cost him $800. This proves Schmidt's suspicions were correct.
  • In the subplot of Benny's Video, Eva and her friends organize an airplane game as part of a get-rich scheme. It is later revealed that the scam worked to great success with Eva profiting tremendously.
  • In Dasepo Sonyo, Poor Girl's family is impoverished largely because her mother bought thousands of worthless pyramids in the mistaken belief that she could sell them for lots of money.
  • Molly's Game: 'Bad' Brad is running a Ponzi scheme and using Molly's game to recruit wealthy suckers into the scheme. It is Molly's unknowing involvement in the scheme that first brings her to the FBI's attention when Brad's scheme comes crashing down.
  • The investment firm in The Murder Man is apparently this, even if no one seems to quite realize it. The murder in question involves the head of the scheme getting shot to death while riding in his limo. Another scene has angry investors wanting their money back. An accountant at the firm matter-of-factly tells a detective that he customarily converted investor securities into cash and deposited the cash in his boss's account.
  • The Other Guys has Corrupt Corporate Executive Pamela Boardman and her British partner-in-crime Sir Ershon conducting such a scheme. After he attempts to defect with the money, she sends mercenary hitmen after him (and the protagonists, who just happened to arrest him on a minor construction fraud). The story ends with him and the assassins arrested, while Boardman receives a bailout from the American government. The ending credits give the viewers an Edutainment section about what a Ponzi scheme is and how it works, complete with the appropriate statistics of the 2008 financial crisis.
  • The Polka King: Based on real-life events, polka musician Jan Lewan takes increasingly larger investments (with huge interest margins) from fans that’s he cannot pay back because none of his many businesses ventures, including his polka band and gift shop, turn an adequate profit. A slightly more amicable version as he seems to appear genuinely convinced he’s going to make it big and be able to pay everyone back (he doesn’t).
  • In Revolver (2005), this is how Jake Green makes his fortune once released from prison.
  • The plot of Korean film The Swindlers is kicked off when a con artist's multi-million dollar (multi-billon won) Ponzi scheme collapses, wiping out the savings of thousands of ordinary Koreans. A group of con artists then set out to destroy the fugitive Ponzi schemer.
  • Tower Heist: The ultimate antagonist of the film is Arthur Shaw, owner of the Tower and Wall Street mogul whose investment firm is revealed to be a Ponzi scheme. To make matters worse, it's revealed that he already knew his scheme was falling apart when he swindled his employees into investing their pension funds with him, just to keep the con running a few months longer. The eponymous heist is a scheme by his ex-employees to break into his penthouse and steal back the pension fund money.
  • The protagonist of Uncut Gems engages in these (as well as high-stakes sports betting to recoup his losses) and is in deep financial trouble with multiple powerful people as a result.
  • The Wizard of Lies is an HBO made-for-cable movie about the infamous scheme orchestrated by Bernie Madoff, with Robert De Niro in the leading role. (Watch the official trailer here.)

  • The Cat Who... Series: The villains of book #23 (The Cat Who Smelled a Rat) are revealed to be involved in one. Including notorious crooked businessman Don Exbridge and Mayor Gregory Blythe, along with supposed bookseller Kirt Nightingale, who's revealed to be a Moose County native who returned to town under an alias.
  • Chocoholic Mysteries: One of the villains in Cat Caper was doing this. He ultimately manipulated another woman into stealing from her boss to feed more money into the same scheme, which is what led to their exposure when they murdered said boss in order to try and cover things up.
  • One such scheme in fiction before the name was created is that run by Merdle in the Charles Dickens novel Little Dorrit. He kills himself just as his scheme is exposed, ruining several characters.
  • In the Arthur Hailey novel The Moneychangers this is what the seemingly powerful Sunatco corporation has turned into. The company has been suffering massive losses but hiding it with fancy bookkeeping. They keep themselves afloat by conning banks and other companies into giving them "loans" and then more loans to pay off their older debts. One example is a set of loans of $80 million to be paid off over forty years. But on the Sunatco books, that's cited as $80 million of profit. However, they're finally hitting the limit of borrowing and thus Sunatco is a house of cards ready to collapse. This is bad news for First Mercantile American bank who had loaned Sunatco $50 million (an astronomical sum in 1975), all of which is used up in only a few months. Thus, if Sunatco goes down, it could take FMA with it.
  • In the Charles Stross novel Neptune's Brood, interstellar colonization is compared to a Ponzi scheme: Setting up a new colony places the colony so deeply in debt that the only way to pay it off is to fund two new colonies, placing them in debt to the first...
  • In Orca, Vlad and Kiera investigate a massive conspiracy that stems from a crooked investment scheme. It turns out that it's all a Government Conspiracy by The Empire to prevent a financial panic from crippling the economy if the news about the scam got out.
  • Used in one of the short stories in the Ellery Queen collection QBI - Queen's Bureau of Investigation.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire has something suspiciously Ponziesque going on, care of Lord Petyr "Just-a-Reminder-that-I'm-Kind-of-Braavosi" Baelish. Tyrion gets a peek at it when he gets hold of the accounts of the Seven Kingdoms, and immediately spots fraud — including the relatively easily detected petty aspects of, say, paying more prison guards than actually exist with the gold obviously going somewhere else. But, there're more than a few hints that whatever Littlefinger has been up to as Master of Coin includes self-sustaining pockets of "investment" dotted about the Seven Kingdoms quite indebted to him, along with more traditional forms of till-dipping, economic speculation, padding, and bribery. Tyrion knows there's more to find than the penny-ante layers of smokescreen he manages to pry apart, but gets removed from the Seven Kingdoms' side of the board in a suspiciously well-timed manner before he can really start getting to the heart of it.
    • Hints we get: The Crown loans money from Iron Bank of Braavos. The Crown loans money to lords of the realm or pays debt to Lannisters, at interest (or just spends it on such things as tourneys, most of which magically ends up in Littlefinger's pockets, because he owns almost all brothels and eateries in King's Landing and beyond). The Crown loans money from Lannisters to pay to Iron Bank. And in circles we go. Until a point in later book when Cersei defaults on payments to Iron Bank. The end result for the kingdom is Iron Bank refusing to lend to anyone from Westeros, calls already outstanding debts from them and starts looking to fund a different king who would pay Crown's debts once he sits on the throne, namely Stannis. The end result for Littlefinger: he gets to change his gold into a lot of political power by loaning (or gifting) the money to lords to pay their suddenly urgent debts to Iron Bank, pushes some of his rich merchant friends into nobility by marrying off their daughters and sons into noble houses and generally tightens his political grip on society.
  • Spoonbenders:
    • UltraLife is the "fastest-growing multilevel marketing company in the United States". Frankie, being the most miserly of the Telemachus family, gets a job there.
      Teddy: When you say multilevel marketing—
      Irene: He means pyramid scheme.
    • The investment firm Irene worked at was guilty of skimming money from client's accounts and keeping them and writing them off as bad investments. When Irene found out, she tried telling her boss about it under the assumption that it was nothing worse than a filing error. Being a Living Lie Detector, she quickly uncovers that they were doing it intentionally and that they were trying to gaslight her into leaving it alone. She punches him for it before calling her various clients and telling them to start looking for an attorney.
  • The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency: Mr. Polopetsi gets suckered into such a scheme where cattle are purchased from drought-stricken areas in the north and taken south to be fattened, promising returns of 25% (and can can honestly say that's how it worked out for him). Mma Ramotswe has to break it down to him that a 25% return is simply impossible given the cost of cattle feed and the return he got is taken from the other people he recruited, and fortunately manages to bring the scheme to a halt before Mr. Polopetsi can do more harm, like getting more people involved or carrying drugs over the border. He manages to refund everyone, but only by selling most of his cattle.

    Live-Action TV 
  • One episode of Angel has a former MLM operator, now turned into a vampire, running a vampiric Ponzi scheme - "Turn Two, One For Food". It has pep rallies and everything.
  • Babylon Berlin shows a variation. It involves a product, stocks or shares. Everybody who sells stocks is selling them to the next buyer then reinvesting them back into different stocks. People loan money they have no way of returning in the hope they'll sell stocks at higher price, as compared to buying stocks for dividends. In 1929, the whole market crashes.
  • The kids toku show Beetleborgs has vampirism being portrayed as a cross between this and a Celestial Bureaucracy— vampires, like Count Fangula, don't actually have to suck blood to survive, but it's apparently their job— they have a quota to fill and if they don't fill it they get punished.
  • Boardwalk Empire:
    • In Episode 1-7, Nucky Thompson has a chat with one of his friends, an investor in/victim of Charles Ponzi's Trope Naming scheme.
    • In season 4, Nucky arrives in Florida at the tail end of the 1920s Florida real estate boom and quickly recognizes that Anaconda Real Estate is a scam fueled by a constant stream of gullible investors. He still buys land in Florida but makes sure that the deal is brokered by a reliable Italian mobster rather than a bunch of New York con artists. On the other hand, Jewish gangster Arnold Rothstein is taken in by the scam but recognizes what is going on before the bubble bursts. He then hatches his own counter-scheme so he can cash out his investment at the same time as the scammers and thus make a profit.
  • In one episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, both Jake and Charles accidentally join "Nutriboom", a shady company that's one half multi-level marketing scheme and one half Church of Happyology.
  • In series three of Downton Abbey, Robert (who has previously lost much of the family fortune through a combination of bad investments and bad luck), resists a plan to modernize Downton and make it economically efficient. As a substitute, he suggests investing with an American chap called Ponzi, of whom he's heard great things.
  • Several episodes of Dragnet involved Ponzi schemes. One was a straight-up "give me money, recruit other people to get you money" plan. Another involved a complicated scheme of getting people to buy ad space on a publication that would get them a "Get Out of Jail Free" Card.
  • On Empire, long-time successful producer Eddie is only helping the Lyons out briefly. However, one of his ex-wives shows up to tell him that his business manager just ripped him off of most everything they had, leaving him, her, his other ex and all his kids basically broke. Eddie decides to keep working at Empire to keep up appearances and not let the Lyons know how bad off he is.
  • Frasier features a relatively benign and small scale version of this when Niles convinces Daphne to invest in tips from his stock broker. When Frasier confronts him about how his own investment on one of those tips failed, Niles admits that while the first was good the rest were a bust and he's been repaying Daphne with interest from his own pocket; partially so as not to lose her life savings, partially because he liked how affectionate she'd get and wanted to keep that going. The scam quickly falls apart when Frasier makes a show in front of Daphne of trying to make an extremely large investment on the latest tip so that Niles has to give it up rather than pay an exorbitant amount back to maintain the lie.
  • The Good Fight kicks off with Chicago financier Henry Rindell arrested for running his invite-only fund as a Ponzi scheme. It turns out that Rindell lost a ton of his own money in 2007 and thus the fund never invested anything but just used his clients' money for Rindell to keep up the appearances of being rich. Maia, his daughter, soon finds herself hated by investors. Meanwhile, Diane Lockhart discovers that she lost almost all her money to Rindell and finds herself blamed by friends and groups who she encouraged to invest with him as well.
  • The iCarly (2021) episode "iMLM" has Griffin, an old boyfriend of Carly's, reentering her life to recruit her into a multi-level marketing scheme selling "Sand", a powder supplement that turns out to be All-Natural Snake Oil.
  • It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia: The Gang attempts to pull this kind of scam multiple times in "Mac and Dennis Buy a Timeshare." Dee falls for the first one because the scammers claim that their organizations are "reverse funnel systems," not pyramid schemes. Frank tells her to turn the organizational chart upside down and when she does she finally realizes the truth.
    • One episode features Frank as having been the victim of a Ponzi scheme that took out his entire fortune. It also has Dennis and Mac effectively pull a scam on themselves when their attempt to start a rewards programme for the bar effectively has them give their entire stock away in exchange for the worthless tokens they issued.
  • Doug in The King of Queens gets conned into one by his neighbor Tim but we never know how Doug manages to get out of it.
  • Several targets on Leverage have used these leading to the team targeting them.
  • Peggy on Married... with Children signs up to sell make-up products for a multi-level marketing company and loudly brags about how her commission checks are far larger than Al's meager paychecks from both the shoe store and more recently Burger Trek. But then it turns out that Peggy has no concept of how business works and has simply been ordering the product for herself and spending the commissions while not reimbursing the company for the product costs. She ends up $623 in debt and Al forces her to Work Off the Debt at Burger Trek.
  • Motive: The murderer in "Calling the Shots" is running a Ponzi. The Victim of the Week is killed when she threatens to expose it.
  • Charles Ponzi himself is a Historical Domain Character in the Murdoch Mysteries feature-length Christmas Episode "Home for the Holidays", where his victims include the Brakenreids.
  • One episode of My Family has the Harpers get conned into joining a pyramid scheme named Pyramus. The recruiter persuades them it's not a pyramid scheme by arguing that if it was, would they have named it "Pyramus"? When the Harpers try this same line on their prospective marks, they see through it, and ultimately the family loses most of what they invested.
  • In Nikita season 2, both Birkoff and Percy get defrauded by one of these in a scheme involving Team Nikita trying to get to Percy's money.
  • In the season 2 finale of Odd Mom Out the ultra-wealthy of New York discover the man they've been investing in "Pulled a Madoff." Keeping with the show's satirical tone, many of these people are still very well off but consider being dropped into a lower tax bracket to be the same as poverty. Ironically, main character Jill (long looked down on for not being as rich as her neighbors) and her husband are okay as they were never wealthy enough to be invited to invest in the guy. Sadly, Jill's mother-in-law put in almost everything she had and is now flat broke.
  • The Office (US): Michael Scott tried to sign the office up for one of these. Jim had to literally illustrate a pyramid to make him realize it's a scam.
  • Penn & Teller: Bullshit! featured an episode about multi-level marketing. However, their legal department informed them that it's legally considered slander to use the terms "pyramid scheme" or "Ponzi scheme" if a multi-level marketing company only pays commission on sale of a product (which all of their case studies adhered to). If commissions are paid for recruiting new members, the business becomes an illegal Ponzi scheme or pyramid scheme. Penn and Teller got around this with a Visual Pun: they stood in front of a picture of a large pyramid, all the while complaining to their lawyer on-camera about how they couldn't use a certain word just because the companies were selling a product.
  • In the Playing House episode "None of Your Business", Emma has to bail Tina out of a pyramid scheme involving overpriced makeup.
  • Schitt's Creek:
    • In Season 1, a former Soap Opera colleague of Moira's sends her a start-up kit for a shady MLM called Allez Vous. Moira dismisses it as a scam but David is immediately taken in by the get rich quick promises of the brochure. Mother and son attempt to make a go of the scheme, only to discover that nearly everyone in the town had already fallen for it a few years prior and were already sales associates and managers who had found little market for the products.
    • In Season 6, Alexis gets hired to promote a Soul-Cycle-like fitness company called Elevation, and she convinces most of the women of the town to sign up for their stair-stepper fitness classes. Turns out, it isn't just a MLM/Pyramid scheme but a full-on cult that promises to elevate its members to something called The Gateway and rendezvous with an alien ship. Alexis helps her friends escape through the back door.
  • One episode of Two and a Half Men has Alan accidentally sets up a Ponzi scheme by asking his friends and family for money for advertisements and paying them back with each other's money. When he realizes what he has done, he decides to just go with it and spends the rest of the money on himself. In the end, he is saved because he is bribed by Rose to keep quiet about her fake marriage and can pay everyone back.
  • The plot of the CBS Sitcom 2 Broke Girls is based on the fallout from one of these. Martin Channing was found guilty of executing a Ponzi scheme and all of his bank accounts were frozen, leaving his daughter Caroline without any money to her name and needing work. This led her to seek employment as a waitress in a diner, where she met Max, who she now lives with.
  • A re-enactment and explanation of the original Ponzi scheme worked is shown in the "Scams" episode of White Rabbit Project.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Ponzi Scheme has up to five players running their own Ponzi schemes. At the beginning of a round, each player takes out a loan that they have to pay interest on every few rounds. The loans are the only source of money in the game so the players have to take ever-increasing loans in order to pay back what they owe on previous loans. The players have to manage keeping their own scheme running while amassing off-shore personal wealth. However, none of the schemers are willing to get out early so the schemes get bigger and bigger until one collapses and the other players make a Run for the Border with their ill-gotten gains.

    Video Games 
  • The Es'Teq of Age of Wonders: Planetfall are a Science Fantasy variation with essence instead of mere money. The low-ranking members are promised immortality, but usually end up drained to death in the long run, while the High Lords get to live forever.
  • The lack of regulation in EVE Online allows for some pretty large Ponzi schemes to pop up. Many Eve players take a warped sense of pride in how friendly their game is to scammers.
    • The Eve Intergalactic Bank in 2006, the largest scam in that game's history (seeing the theft of 671 billion ISK, which translates to $119,000 at the exchange rates of the time), was one of these. The man who predicted that it was a scam was also, before that bank's collapse, the previous record holder for the title of "largest scam in Eve."
    • Phaser Inc. in 2011, another textbook Ponzi scheme, got away with 1034 billion ISK, then equivalent to around US$51,700.
  • In Mafia III while sneaking through Un Belle Jardin in the French Ward to kill VIP clients to screw over Harry Robicheaux, one of "Uncle" Lou Marcano's racket bosses, you can hear one client named Captain Pennies who brags about doing this to the blacks of New Bordeaux to the hooker in front of him, saying he'll double their money, relishing when it's little old ladies who give their retirement. It makes it even sweeter for Lincoln to kill him.
  • Nef Anyo tried to do this in Warframe, and his target was the entire solar system. An in-game event revolved around stealing his money by violently uploading phishing software into his robot bodyguards.

    Web Comics 
  • Krakow had an arc where a character got trapped in a knife-selling MLM.
  • Spinnerette:
    • One comic shows Bernie Madoff as a Egyptian-themed supervillain.
    • In a more serious arc, Heather's mother gets sucked into a multi-level-marketing scheme called Lola Rue which was run by a Wendigo, and possessed her.

    Web Original 
  • StewdioMACK episode "Mack the Bank" features Mack attempting to start his own bank and perpetrate a Ponzi scheme. It does not go well.
    Mack's mom: Mack, stop, I've called the cops on you.
    Mack: What? Why?
    Mack's mom: For running a Ponzi scheme!
    Mack: I'm not running a Ponzi scheme...
    Mack's mom: Yeah you are! When you were at Mark's house trying to lure him into the Ponzi scheme, I went into the kitchen and found these papers! Look, this one says, "MY NAME IS MACK AND I AM RUNNING A PONZI SCHEME."
    Mack: That could have been anyone named Mack that's running a Ponzi scheme!
    Mack's mom: I found more paperwork that says, "IF I DENY THAT I AM RUNNING A PONZI SCHEME, DON'T BELIEVE ME, IT IS 100% A PONZI SCHEME."
    Mack: That's pretty... incriminating.

    Western Animation 
  • The Archer episode "A Going Concern" has Mallory blow all of the agency's money on one of these schemes.
  • The Hey Arnold! episode "The High Life" featured Gerald involved in one of these selling Whacko Watches. The scheme involved having kids purchasing larger quantities of the watches until the local market was saturated, then forcing the parents to bail them out. Gerald and Arnold collapse the scheme by faking out the schemer on the success that Gerald is having, tricking him into rebuying his own stock.
  • The Owl House: Played for Laughs in the episode “For The Future”. It’s revealed that one of Camila’ failures in her life was selling energy drinks in a pyramid scheme for three years.
  • The Teen Titans Go! episode "Pyramid Scheme" has Beast Boy falling for one such scheme and pulling the others into it. Robin tries to explain to them what a pyramid scheme is (a sketchy and unsustainable business model), but they think it involves actual pyramids and mummies. The main cast sans Robin all start swimming in cash for a while, but then Beast Boy realizes he forgot that most of their revenue has to go to the boss, who happens to be an actual mummy. In huge debt after they literally ate their own profits, the mummy enslaves them into working in the hot, scorching desert much like oxen.

    Real Life 
  • Charles Ponzi's scheme supposedly revolved around "international reply coupons", which were effectively international postage stamps. They could be exchanged for a stamp in any country in the world. Since postage rates differed from country to country (Ponzi's home of Italy charged less for a stamp than the United States did), one could in theory buy an international reply coupon in a country where stamps were cheaper and sell them for a profit in countries where stamps were more expensive. The problems with this idea were obvious—it would have taken quite a long time to move coupons around the world on steamships in 1920, and there weren't enough of them to fund Ponzi's supposed business anyway—but that didn't stop people from investing $15 million in eight months before the scheme collapsed.
  • Bernie Madoff's scheme was distinct from regular Ponzi schemes not just by its size but by its surprising stability. Most Ponzi schemes usually go bust when the new "investments" run out and the operator bails out or gets arrested for fraud. Madoff operated for at least 15 years and probably more like 20 (he later insisted that he didn't start his scheme until the early 1990s but the most probable date is after the 1987 stock market crash) by simply promising his "investors" moderate but reliable rates of return. He was able to keep it up until the economic panic and crash of 2008 led to too many investors taking their money out, and more importantly a total lack of new investment coming in, causing Madoff's slush fund to dry up.note  That Madoff was chummy with regulators and Jewish charities shocked many, as his family donated generously to them for years and he himself pioneered the trading technology that was later used to develop the NASDAQ, of which he was its CEO at one point.
  • Allen Stanford's scheme gave him de-facto control over Antigua and grossed over $8 billion from swindling clients from the U.S. and Latin America. His "bank" profited from its customers through its Certificates of Deposit, meaning people placed their life savings at the mercy of Stanford and his free-spending ways. While he spent some money building Antigua's infrastructure and donating to charities like St. Jude, most of it was spent lobbying politicians as well as partying and ferrying himself on private jets and yachts. It was not until 2009 when the SEC raided Stanford's Houston headquarters and ordered his arrest. Swindled has an overview of Stanford's elaborate Ponzi scheme, which you can listen to here.
  • Following the Cold War, several countries that had previously been Commie Land were suddenly turned into free-market economies. After generations under a planned economy (sixty-three years in the case of the Soviet Union proper), all kinds of schemes naturally abounded, since people had a rather vague idea of what should and shouldn't be allowed under capitalism.
    • Soviet criminal codes did have a pretty clear understanding of pyramid schemes, though. Both organizing and knowingly participating in one was punishable. It didn't quite kill the "5 addresses lottery", though.rules 
    • Of all 1990s schemes, the one involving most of the population of Albania tops it. Nasty fallout, though.
    • Several big cases hit New Russia a few years earlier, but without such drastic consequences, since the victims were only several percent of the population. Several more or less legit companies (trading in electronics, real estate, telemarketing, and such) decided that selling and reselling their shares was much more profitable and inflated the prices beyond any reason. Sergei Mavrodi's MMM is the most famous, both because of its ad campaigns and for being the first to collapse.
      • Mavrodi's persistence deserves mention. He insisted till his death that he was a victim of the government smear campaign and that his scheme would have ultimately profited everybody involved. After doing his time he declared in 2011 that he would create another pyramid, MMM-2011, to pay the money lost in the previous one. When it collapsed, he again blamed the government, promised to sue them for damages, tried to run for a place in the Opposition Coordination Council, and tried to start yet another pyramid, MMM-2012.
  • Adjusting for inflation and overall world economic growth, the all-time biggest Ponzi scheme (so far) was that perpetrated by "The Match King" Ivar Kreuger. This is somewhat complicated by the fact that the whole mess was basically a combination of a Ponzi scheme, questionable financial trickery, and genuine successful investments. Add in unclear book-keeping, and the exact size of the Ponzi becomes a tad unclear.
  • Boy Band magnate Lou Pearlman used a combination of many fake companies and his record producing career to defraud over $1 billion out of numerous investors. Not even the boy bands he managed were safe from his cons.
  • There was a scandal in Mexico involving community savings banks. the marks — most of them impoverished workers with only a few dollars of savings, whose only education was elementary school, and who made up roughly 40% of Mexico's population — were lured into legitimate-looking institutions, were promised gigantic interests around 40%, dazed and confused with ebullient econobabble, and then they would pony up their entire life savings, thinking it would finally make them rich. Then the banks played upon the existing corruption and elitism in the Mexican government, and proceeded to bribe the entire judicial system into protecting them once it was time to get away. After a while, all these "savings banks" suddenly closed, and their owners fled to where no one could find them. Cue the occasional Molotov bottle thrown against Mexico's banking authorities.
  • The Florida land boom of the 1920s was the first and among the most notable of such real estate bubbles; it even forms a plot point in the Marx Brothers film The Cocoanuts.
  • The only difference between an illegal pyramid scheme and a legal multilevel marketing company (MLM) is that an MLM sells a product. In practice, both rely on ever-expanding recruitment, both leave the end-user usually taking the loss, and both suffer a massive problem when the exponentially-increasing number of people needed simply saturates the community. However, MLM companies remain on the right side of the law because of the product. The bottom tier of an illegal pyramid scheme cannot make any money without recruiting a new, lower tier. The bottom tier in an MLM can, in theory, sell the product to outsiders to make money. But since an MLM company requires distributors to purchase the product directly from them before they can sell and/or recruit, the company makes money from gaining new distributors whether they sell to outsiders or not. While a small fraction of MLM participants do make money, the vast majority (even according to figures released by MLM companies) lose money to their so-called employers. But don't call it a Ponzi scheme - you can get sued. It's absolutely, positively legally distinct from a Ponzi/pyramid scheme.
  • Speculative bubbles are essentially self-running Ponzi schemes. They occur when people start buying something (say, real estate) because they think it's a good investment, causing prices to go up, causing other people to buy more real estate, causing prices to go up, etc. The catch is that nobody actually wants the thing they're buying, they just want to make money by selling it after the price goes up - and the only people they can sell it to are other people who're trying to cash in. The bubble is said to have "popped" when people stop buying into it, causing people to start trying to cash out by selling off their investments, causing the price to drop, causing people to sell off their investments, causing the price to drop, etc.
    • This is why a lot of people during the US housing market crash of 2007-08 commented that the entire economy of Florida in the leadup to the crisis had been a giant Ponzi scheme, as the state had been running very heavily on housing construction, development, realty, and allied trades, but not much else; a much larger-than-average percentage of the people who already lived in Florida made their living housing the people who were moving into Florida.
  • The "5 wallets" scheme in PayPal and similar systems, similar to the Older Than Radio "5 addresses" above, is the quintessential pyramid scheme that flooded mailboxes in the late 90s and early 2000s. It's explicitly prohibited by every payment system, but still widely advertised by spammers. Like its predecessor, this is generally an outright fraud, where all "previous participants" are really the same person (it's easier to set up one person with five PayPal accounts than find five addresses to use).
  • In the mid- to late-2000s, a number of American Soap Opera actors got involved in MLMs and sold both products and sales buy-in kits at fan events. Rumors flew that on the set of General Hospital actors who objected because they found the practice exploitative were socially shunned by the rest of the cast and threatened with bad storylines. Ingo Rademacher, who plays Jax, was particularly vocal about his objections to a juice-selling MLM and even sent an email to the cast and producers outlining why. In the end, however, producers decided to clamp down on the practice as it was hurting the already struggling genre's reputation.
  • A company called DC Solar that supposedly manufactured, leased, and sold solar generators was found to be operating a Ponzi scheme in 2018. The company claimed they had manufactured and leased/sold over 12,000 generators, when in fact less than half that number had actually been built. The owners, Jeff and Paulette Carpoff, intentionally lied to investors in order to obtain money to be used on their own endeavors, which included 150 luxury cars, a private jet, and NASCAR sponsorship. Not only do Jeff and Paulette face up to 30 and 15 years in prison respectively, but NASCAR team Chip Ganassi Racing was forced to close their Xfinity Series team due to lack of sponsorshipnote . (DC Solar sponsored the team before the raid on the company's headquarters) One of Chip Ganassi's (former) drivers Kyle Larson also had one of his Xfinity Series cars seized by the FBI due to being sponsored by DC Solar. On top of all that, the Carpoffs owe various racetracks that NASCAR races at thousands of dollars in unpaid sponsorships.
  • In the 1980s, the French bank Credit Lyonnais got into the habit of loaning money to basically every B-tier movie company in Hollywood, with Carolco Pictures, The Cannon Group and others among their clients; they basically built things up into a giant Ponzi-esque scheme over time. It didn't matter that these companies were making bomb films and weren't able to pay off their loans; as long as Credit Lyonnais was being bribed with all sorts of stuff, they kept the money flowing via shell companies, and used other shell companies to hide their financial misdeeds. Things got even worse when another fraudster, Italy's Giancarlo Parretti, got involved by buying Cannon. He embezzled even more money, bribed the bankers with vacations and artwork, and ultimately began pulling much the same stuff when he, with Credit Lyonnais' assistance, bought MGM in late 1990. It took about eight months for the entire thing to come crashing down around his ears; Credit Lyonnais kicked Parretti out and had him arrested, and spent the next few years attempting to sell MGM to someone (ultimately, that wound up Kirk Kerkorian, who'd already sold MGM twice before, once to Ted Turner and then to Parretti). The French government also wound up bailing out the bank (who'd been involved in other financial scandals) and helped to sell off some of the assets; this included the Epic library, which consisted of many of the smaller companies indebted to Credit Lyonnais like Hemdale, Nelson and Epic itself (set up basically as a shell to purchase the assets of the failing Empire International). Polygram Filmed Entertainment bought the Epic library in 1997, but new owners Seagram's (in the process of absorbing Polygram into Universal and selling many of their assets to defray the cost of the deal) sold the Epic library (and Polygram's pre-1996 library) to MGM, bringing things full-circle.
  • Sam Bankman-Fried (SBF) had a glowing reputation as a techbro to the point that FTX Trading became the third largest crypto exchange. However, that all came crashing down after he was accused of defrauding as much as $10 billion from clients to binge-spend and hide outstanding debts of another firm he owned, triggering the equivalent of a cryptocurrency bank run. SBF tried blaming his employees and hightailing to the Bahamas, but was deported back. FTX's bankruptcy indirectly led to the collapse of crypto-friendly banks such as Signature Bank, Silicon Valley Bank and Silvergate Bank in early 2023 due to a lax regulatory environment. SBF is also facing a related trial in 2024 on allegations he bribed Chinese government officials in an effort to unfreeze accounts belonging to his hedge fund in Hong Kong.
  • The U.S. Social Security system is often compared to a Ponzi or pyramid scheme by its critics. The principle is similar: workers pay into a trust fund from which retirees are paid. In other words, it's a money pipeline with a promise that, after paying into it for long enough you get to switch to the other side. Trouble is, with people living a lot longer than they did when the system was created in 1935, there's more money flowing out than in, and it doesn't help that other parts of the government love to raid the fund for their own purposes. Plus it's a sacred cow of politics, making reforms almost impossible. Projections about the program's sustainability are not good.


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Alternative Title(s): Pyramid Scheme, Ponzi Scheme, Multilevel Marketing Scheme


Phoenix Phlying

At first, it seems like Phoenix Phlying Feminist Retreat was just a feminist retreat, but it turns out Phoenix Phlying is a cis hetero woke man who has a multi-level marketing scheme by selling breast milk and has an obsession with women's breast. Honeybee immediately saw the red flags and flees with Judy.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (12 votes)

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Main / Cult

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