Frauds and scams are part of our lives for a very long time. From corporate frauds, government official frauds to individual scams, our society has witnessed all. Time and again we have heard of big scams like Indian Coal Allocation Scam 2012 – Rs 1,86,000 Crore, 2G Spectrum Scam 2008 – Rs 1,76,000 Crore, Commonwealth Games Scam 2010 – Rs 70,000 Crore, Satyam Scam 2009 – Rs 14,000 Crore, etc.
However, one such scam which is quite common but never came in a lot of notice or fame for the retail people is “Ponzi Schemes”. Although a lot of people have lost lakhs of rupees in these schemes, however, most of our population still do not understand what exactly are these and how they work. In this article, we are going to demystify this fraud and discuss what is Ponzi scheme, it’s history, some infamous Ponzi Schemes and how investors and common people can safeguard themselves from such fraudulent tricks.
What is Ponzi Scheme?
A Ponzi scheme is an investment scam where returns are paid to existing investors from funds contributed by new investors. In a Ponzi scheme, investors are duped by being promised high returns with little or no risk on their investments. The scammers then rely on cash flow from recent investors to provide returns to older investors. The scam runs along the lines of ‘Robbing Peter to pay Paul’.
Here the investors have no idea from where their returns come from. They are misled to believe that the returns are being generated from the success of a business opportunity or the superior skills of a portfolio manager. At the initial stages, if an investor wishes to withdraw money, the scammers ensure that this is done promptly in order to gain the investors’ trust. The liquidity coupled with the superior returns results in a social feedback loop where current investors amazed by the returns suggests it to their friends and relatives.
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History of Ponzi Schemes
The scheme is named after a man called Charles Ponzi, an Italian who committed the fraud a century ago. He promised to pay investors a 50% profit within 45 days or 100% profit in 90 days. He claimed that he was able to raise the profits by acquiring Postal Reply Coupons from countries where it was cheaper and sell these coupons in countries where they were being sold at a higher.
How is the Ponzi Scheme different from a Pyramid scheme?
A Ponzi scheme may at times be confused with a Pyramid. A Ponzi scheme promises a high rate of return and the source of these returns is hidden from the investors (which is actually from the investments of new investors).
In a Pyramid scheme, it is made clear to investors that in order to gain returns they have to recruit new investors. The new investors further have to do the same after the initial investment and so on. In addition to this investors at times are also given a right to sell a product in exchange for a commission which also turns a pyramid scheme into a marketing and sales campaign.
Some Other Infamous Ponzi Schemes.
— Bernie Madoff
The phrase ‘ Give the devil his due’ suits no one better than Bernie Madoff and his Ponzi Scheme. This is due to the size, period, and the ruse implemented by Bernie Madoff. Bernie Madoff was a pioneer in the investing world as he brought forward the advent of trading using electronic systems, and hence NASDAQ. He was also looked up to as he served as the non- executive chairman of the NASDAQ for 3 terms( 1990-93).
The success of cryptocurrencies took the world by storm due to the success of Bitcoin and Ethereum. But scamsters somehow have always have managed to be a step ahead adapting to cutting edge innovations. Cryptocurrencies too have not been free from scams as con-artists take advantage of investors who evidently have lesser knowledge of the working of cryptocurrencies.
Plustoken a crypto from China received investments of $2 billion. They did this by marketing themselves as a crypto wallet service. Here the investors were promised higher returns if they exchanged Bitcoin or Ehereum in exchange for Plustoken’s own crypto. This scheme was just another Ponzi were over 3 million investors were cheated.
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How do you protect yourself from Ponzi Schemes?
1. High investment returns with little or no risk
Any investment opportunity that says this is a major flag that actually says you are never getting your money back. It is best to apply one of the basic rules of investing here that only with greater risk comes with greater reward. Low risk is accompanied by lower returns. Investors should also beware of words like ‘ everyone else is doing it and profiting’ as these create a fear of missing out.
2. Overly consistent returns
Investments react to market trends barring a few outliers from time to time. If you are given proof or notice that the investments are able to generate consistent returns regardless of the market going through extended bearish periods, then it is another red flag. Bernie Madoff’s investment firm delivered consistent returns of 8-10% every year regardless of market trends. This was a major red flag that investors missed.
3. Secretive or complex strategies
When you receive investment opportunities it is best to try and understand how the business or investment opportunity works.
Scammers in the crypto world have made use of this obliviousness that investors had towards the working of a cryptocurrency.
4. Believe numbers and data over individuals
Scammers generally have charismatic qualities that attract people towards them. Bernie Madoff was always seen as the most genuine individual until the scam broke out. He was described as a person always reachable by phone. Investors have even claimed that he attended funerals when one of their loved ones passed away as a sign of support. This quality allowed Bernie to gain the trust of potential investors at the synagogues he prayed in and the country clubs he hung out in.
5. Background Checks
It is always best to perform background checks when we are presented by investment opportunities by individuals. This can be done by verifying the firm’s registration numbers.