Busted: Bankers and The Global Economy

April 1, 2010

Don’t Get Taken by Pyramid & Ponzi Schemes

What are some of the similarities and differences between ponzi and pyramid schemes?

Pyramid schemes and ponzi schemes are closely related. They both involve paying longer-standing members with money from new participants, instead of actual profits from investing or selling products to the public. Here are some common differences:

Pyramid Scheme
Ponzi Scheme
Typical “hook” Earn high profits by making one payment and finding a set number of others to become distributors of a product. The scheme typically does not involve a genuine product. The purported product may not exist or it may only be “sold” within the pyramid scheme. Earn high investment returns with little or no risk by simply handing over your money; the investment typically does not exist.
Payments/profits Must recruit new distributors to receive payments. No recruiting necessary to receive payments.
Interaction with original promoter Sometimes none.  New participants may enter scheme at a different level. Promoter generally acts directly with all participants.
Source of payments From new participants – always disclosed. From new participants – never disclosed.
Collapse Fast.  An exponential increase in the number of participants is required at each level. May be relatively slow if existing participants reinvest money.

What steps can you take to avoid schemes and other investment frauds?

When you consider your next investment opportunity, start with these questions:

  • Is the seller licensed?
  • Is the investment registered?
  • How do the risks compare with the potential rewards?
  • Do I understand the investment?

Many ponzi schemes share common characteristics. Look for these warning signs:

  • High investment returns with little or no risk. Every investment carries some degree of risk. Investments yielding higher returns typically involve more risk. Be highly suspicious of any “guaranteed” investment opportunity.
  • Overly consistent returns. Investments tend to go up and down over time, especially those seeking high returns. Be suspect of an investment that continues to generate regular, positive returns regardless of overall market conditions.
  • Unregistered investments. Ponzi schemes typically involve investments that have not been registered with the SEC or with state regulators. Registration is important because it provides investors with access to key information about the company’s management, products, services, and finances.
  • Unlicensed sellers. Federal and state securities laws require investment professionals and their firms to be licensed or registered. Most ponzi schemes involve unlicensed individuals or unregistered firms.
  • Secretive and/or complex strategies. Avoiding investments you don’t understand or for which you can’t get complete information is a good rule of thumb.
  • Issues with paperwork. Ignore excuses regarding why you can’t review information about an investment in writing, and always read an investment’s prospectus or disclosure statement carefully before you invest. Also, account statement errors may be a sign that funds are not being invested as promised.
  • Difficulty receiving payments. Be suspicious if you don’t receive a payment or have difficulty cashing out your investment. Keep in mind that ponzi scheme promoters sometimes encourage participants to “roll over” promised payments by offering even higher investment returns.
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