Who Was Ponzi & What Was His Scheme?

What is a Ponzi scheme? And why does it bear this name? First, you need to know a little bit about its namesake, Charles Ponzi.

Anyone can work a simple swindle, but you have to be a special kind of con man to have your name become synonymous with "fraud." Ponzi pulled it off, though. After arriving in the U.S. from Italy in 1903, Ponzi knocked around in a variety of unskilled jobs that usually ended when he got into trouble for theft or cheating customers. A few years later, he moved to Canada, where he spent a hitch in prison for passing a forged check. When he eventually drifted back down to the U.S., he needed a way to make some quick cash.

Making Money via Mail

Ponzi eventually found his way to get rich quick using a vagary of the postal system. At the time, it was common for letters abroad to include an international reply coupon "“ a voucher that could be exchanged for minimum postage back to the country from which the letter was sent. Thus, if you sent your buddy in France a letter, you could include a coupon so he could respond. (This practice still exists but is less common.) As exchange and postal rates fluctuated, though, there was an opportunity to make a profit. You only had to purchase postal reply coupons cheaply in some foreign country, send them back to the U.S. to swap them out for American stamps of a higher value, then sell these stamps. This arrangement was perfectly legal; it was just cleverly gaming the system. Ponzi started buying and selling postal reply coupons using agents in his native Italy, and he was making a good living doing it.

Unfortunately, whatever defect made Ponzi steal from his employers and pass bad checks prompted him to get greedy here, too. He started to recruit investors into his system with the promise of 50% returns in just a few days. Investors would pay their cash in, and sure enough, Ponzi would get them the promised return. Everyone was happy with the results, and word started to spread about this Italian financial wizard. Within two years, he had employees all over the country recruiting new takers for this foolproof investment strategy.

Ponzi was pocketing millions, and he enjoyed a sumptuous life outside of Boston. At his peak, Ponzi was raking in $250,000 a day, which enabled him to collect such necessities as gold-handled canes. He became a celebrity investor, almost like the Warren Buffett of his day.

The Scheme

Why is it hard to think of Ponzi's name without affixing "scheme" to the end of it, then? Ponzi's underlying "business" — the arbitrage on the postal coupons — wasn't actually as sound as he claimed. In fact, there wasn't even really a business. However, since so much money was flowing in from new investors, he could just pay off the returns for the old ones from the new cash. In fact, Ponzi didn't even need to pay off the old investors, since many of them wanted to reinvest their returns in this wonderful business. Ponzi's charms made it easy for him to placate any worried customers, and his con looked unstoppable.

Fuzzy Math

Eventually, though, smarter financial heads started looking at Ponzi's business. Clarence Barron, owner of the Wall Street Journal and founder of the financial magazine that bears his name, realized Ponzi must have been a huckster and went on the offensive. While Barron conceded that there probably was a way for a person to make a small amount of quick cash on the postal reply coupon scheme, he figured that Ponzi would have to be moving 160 million coupons around to raise the cash he needed to support the business. Since there were only 27,000 postal reply coupons circulating in the world, Ponzi's story didn't check out. (Things only got worse when the Postal Service reported that there wasn't a huge flow of the coupons from one country to the other.)

On top of that, Barron noted that Ponzi told newspapers he invested his own cash in real estate, stocks, and bonds like any normal investor. Barron pointed out the obvious question here: if Ponzi had this failsafe scheme in which he could make a 50% profit, why was he putting his own money into plain old investment instruments that would give him (maybe) a 5% return? Those certainly didn't sound like the actions of a financial genius.

Barron's conclusions ran as front-page news in the Boston Post in July 1920, which would have been damning for most cons. Ponzi was such a charismatic force of nature, though, that many people chose not to believe the paper's report. Few believed that their hero, the man who had "tripled" their life savings, was anything less than 100% legitimate. In fact, the morning that the Post ran Barron's report, investors lined up around the block outside of his office in an attempt to give him more money "“ even after they'd been told that they'd been scammed. Ponzi later boasted that he'd taken in a million dollars in new investments the day the report ran.

The Unraveling

Things were starting to look less rosy for the scammer, though. Although he'd largely placated his investors after Barron's report, Ponzi must have realized his window of opportunity was closing. He hired a publicist, William McMasters, but the PR man saw through Ponzi's lies and renounced his client in the press. James Walsh reprints part of McMasters' slam of Ponzi in his book, You Can't Cheat An Honest Man. Of Ponzi, McMasters said, "The man is a financial idiot. He can hardly add"¦He sits with his feet on the desk smoking expensive cigars in a diamond holder and talking complete gibberish about postal coupons."

The next month, regulators raided Ponzi's office and discovered that he didn't have a huge quantity of postal reply coupons. Since Ponzi had used the mail to notify his marks of how their "investments" were performing, he faced serious mail fraud charges; in total, the government brought 86 charges against him in two separate indictments. Ponzi pled guilty to one of these charges in exchange for a light sentence of five years.

He served around three and a half years, then got his release to face state charges, for which he received a sentence of nine more years. But before he could go back to jail, he jumped bail and tried to start new scams in Florida and Texas. (You'd think the government would have learned their lesson about trusting this guy.) Eventually, though, his time on the lam ran out, and he served his whole sentence.

Upon his release, Ponzi was deported to Italy and spent the rest of his life in poverty before dying in 1949 in Rio de Janeiro, where he's buried in a pauper's grave.

What Happens If I Don't Pay My Taxes on Time?

Marco Verch Professional Photo, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Marco Verch Professional Photo, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

While death and taxes may be the only true certainties in life, somehow Tax Day always seems to sneak up on us. So what happens if tax season slips your mind, and you just don't file anything?

It depends. If you already know you're not going to get your taxes done by Tax Day, you can file for an extension. You can get an extra six months to file federal taxes by filling out a form and estimating (and paying) how much you'll owe for that year.

While you may be granted a filing extension, you are still required to pay your taxes by the regular due date: If you don't hand the IRS at least an estimated amount by April 15, you'll be charged a fee equal to .5 percent of the tax you owed in the first place per month it was left unpaid (up to 25 percent). If you ignore repeated notices from the IRS, that .5 percent increases to 1 percent per month. And you'll have to pay interest on the money you haven't given over (3 percent plus the federal short-term rate, which changes every three months, compounded each day).

If you don't file any federal income tax return at all by mid-April, you'll be slapped with a fine—5 percent of the amount you already owe for each month you're overdue, up to 25 percent. If you file your return more than two months late without a good excuse, you'll pay a minimum of $135 in penalty fees, or the balance of the tax you owe, if that total is less than $135. (According to the IRS's website, "The total penalty for failure to file and pay can be 47.5 percent [22.5 percent late filing and 25 percent late payment] of the tax owed.")

If you do a little math, you'll see that it usually pays to go ahead and file your return or get an extension, even if you can't pay your taxes immediately. Here's how Turbotax explains it:

Example: Let's say you didn't file your return or an extension by April 15, and you still owe the IRS an additional $1000.

Scenario 1: You file an extension on or before April 15 and pay your $1000 bill on April 25 (10 days late). Your penalty would be $5 (the 0.5 percent late-payment penalty applied to $1000), plus another dollar or so for the interest.

Scenario 2: You didn't file an extension, and you file your return on April 25 (10 days late) along with your $1000 payment. Your penalty would be $50 (the 5 percent late-filing penalty applied to $1000), plus another dollar or so for the interest.

Scenario 3: You file your return five years late, along with your $1000 payment. Your penalty would be around $534 (the maximum late-filing penalty of 25 percent applied to $1000, plus 5 percent interest compounded daily assuming the interest rate doesn't change).

If you don't owe any taxes because your employer withheld more than necessary and you are due to get a tax refund, you have three years to file your taxes before the IRS will keep that money. So as long as you get around to it by April 2022, you'll still get that money back. After those three years, the IRS will keep your whole refund, and it won't count toward next year's tax bill, either.

Say you just don't want to pay your taxes (a crime, just to be clear). How long before the IRS will come after you?

If your penalties and back-taxes add up to more than $25,000, someone from the IRS is going to come knocking at your door. In 2016, the IRS investigated 206 people for regularly failing to file their taxes, and put 159 people in jail for an average of three years. (Remember, it was the IRS that took down Al Capone.)

If you are a chronic non-filer and don't file your taxes even after warnings from the IRS, the government will go ahead and estimate what you owe, calculating what's called a "substitute for return." This total doesn't include deductions that you might have been eligible for, meaning that if you let the government do your taxes for you, you'll probably end up with a heftier bill.

And that's just at the federal level. While states vary on how they treat people who don't file their taxes, they slap penalties and interest on late returns and payments, too. Some states will even take your federal tax refund to pay your state back taxes. However, in many states, being approved for a federal tax extension also gets you an automatic extra six months on your state income taxes.

The lesson: If there's any chance you'll be late filing your return this year, ask for an extension ASAP.

A version of this story was first published in 2016.

Why Does the Queen Have Two Birthdays?

Toby Melville, WPA Pool/Getty Images
Toby Melville, WPA Pool/Getty Images

On April 21, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will turn 93 years old. To mark the occasion, there are usually a series of gun salutes around London: a 41 gun salute in Hyde Park, a 21 gun salute in Windsor Great Park, and a 62 gun salute at the Tower of London. For the most part, the monarch celebrates her big day privately. But on June 8, 2019, Her Majesty will parade through London as part of an opulent birthday celebration known as Trooping the Colour.

Queen Elizabeth, like many British monarchs before her, has two birthdays: the actual anniversary of the day she was born, and a separate day that is labeled her "official" birthday (usually the second Saturday in June). Why? Because April 21 is usually too cold for a proper parade.

The tradition started in 1748, with King George II, who had the misfortune of being born in chilly November. Rather than have his subjects risk catching colds, he combined his birthday celebration with the Trooping the Colour.

The parade itself had been part of British culture for almost a century by that time. At first it was strictly a military event, at which regiments displayed their flags—or colours—so that soldiers could familiarize themselves. But George was known as a formidable general after having led troops at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743, so the military celebration seemed a fitting occasion onto which to graft his warm-weather birthday. Edward VII, who also had a November birthday, was the first to standardize the June Trooping the Colour and launched a tradition of a monarchical review of the troops that drew crowds of onlookers.

Even now, the date of the "official" birthday varies year to year. For the first seven years of her reign, Elizabeth II held her official birthday on a Thursday but has since switched over to Saturdays. And while the date is tied to the Trooping the Colour in the UK, Commonwealth nations around the world have their own criteria, which generally involve recognizing it as a public holiday.

Australia started recognizing an official birthday back in 1788, and all the provinces (save one) observe the Queen's Birthday on the second Monday in June, with Western Australia holding its celebrations on the last Monday of September or the first Monday of October.

In Canada, the official birthday has been set to align with the actual birth date of Queen Victoria—May 24, 1819—since 1845, and as such they celebrate so-called Victoria Day on May 24 or the Monday before.

In New Zealand, it's the first Monday in June, and in the Falkland Islands the actual day of the Queen's birth is celebrated publicly.

All in all, just another reason it's great to be Queen.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This story has been updated for 2019.

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