Scam Busters: The 7 Greatest Ponzi Schemes


Bernard Madoff’s reported $50 billion swindle is being called the worst in history, but who is his competition?

When it comes to big promises and lost millions, there's a long Hall of Shame. Here are seven of the most notorious Ponzi schemes in recent history:

7. Charles Ponzi
While Madoff has a punnier name (because he “made off” with his victims’ money) this charismatic Italian immigrant gave the scheme its moniker. In 1920 he promised investors a 50% return in 45 days. Ponzi's plan was to buy postal reply coupons cheap from Europe and then exchange them for more than twice as much in the U.S. Instead, he paid his investors off with the new money that came in, about $15 million in nine months. Ponzi was exposed by a former Boston Post reporter he had hired for public relations. He was convicted of mail fraud and after being released from prison, was deported back to Italy in 1934.
The Loot: $15 million (about $154 million in today's dollars)

6. Luis Enrique and Osvaldo Villalobos
These two Costa Rican brothers mostly targeted American and Canadian retirees by promising to invest a minimum of $10,000 from the late 1980s until 2002. They also promised a 3% per month return, but really just moved money around various shell companies. In 2007, Osvaldo was sentenced to 18 years in prison. His brother remains on the lam.
The Loot: $400 million

5. Michael Eugene Kelly
This hotelier was arrested in late 2006 for victimizing thousands of senior citizens, duping them into using their retirement savings to invest in timeshares in several hotels in Cancun and promising a high rate of return. The Securities and Exchange Commission alleges Kelly and several others brought in $428 million from 1999 to 2005, with more than a third of that money coming from retirement accounts.
The Loot: at least $428 million

4. Gerald Payne
In a scam of Biblical proportions, Greater Ministries International and its minister, Payne, promised to double church members’ investments in precious metals. In the 1990s Payne and the ultra-conservative Tampa, Fla., church cheated around 18,000 people. Payne claimed that God had asked him to share the secret of multiplying loaves and fishes in the modern age, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
The Loot: almost $500 million

3. Lou Pearlman
Some people may debate which is worse: Boy band manager Lou Pearlman giving the world the Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync, or perpetrating what is considered one of the longest-running Ponzi schemes in the U.S. Over two decades, Pearlman made millions go “Bye Bye Bye,” by getting people to invest in fictitious Trans Continental Airlines. In May he was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison.
The Loot: almost $500 million

2. Reed Slatkin
Scientology minister Reed Slatkin was busted by the SEC in 2000 for posing as an investment adviser and taking millions from hundreds of people, many of them Hollywood A-listers. Slatkin worked his scam out of his garage, and sent much of the money on to L. Ron Hubbard's church and other affiliated groups.
The Loot: almost $600 million

1. Rogue Albanian Government Workers
After the fall of Communism in the 1990s, Albania was rife with various state-endorsed Ponzi schemes. By 1997 Albanians rioted and brought down the government.
The Loot: some $1.2 billion

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