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Ponzi's Scheme: The True Story of a Financial Legend [Paperback]

Mitchell Zuckoff

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Book Description

Jan. 10 2006
It was a time when anything seemed possible–instant wealth, glittering fame, fabulous luxury–and for a run of magical weeks in the spring and summer of 1920, Charles Ponzi made it all come true. Promising to double investors’ money in three months, the dapper, charming Ponzi raised the “rob Peter to pay Paul” scam to an art form. At the peak of his success, Ponzi was raking in more than $2 million a week at his office in downtown Boston. Then his house of cards came crashing down–thanks in large part to the relentless investigative reporting of Richard Grozier’s Boston Post. A classic American tale of immigrant life and the dream of success, Ponzi’s Scheme is the amazing story of the magnetic scoundrel who launched the most successful scheme of financial alchemy in modern history.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition (Jan. 10 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0812968360
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812968361
  • Product Dimensions: 20.3 x 13.2 x 2.3 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 431 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #376,538 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

Before Charles Ponzi (1882â€"1949) sailed from Italy to the shores of America in 1903, his father assured him that the streets were really paved with gold - and that Ponzi would be able to get a piece. As journalist Zuckoff observes in this engaging and fast-paced biography, Ponzi learned as soon as he disembarked that though the streets were often cobblestone, he could still make a fortune in a culture caught in the throes of the Gilded Age. Zuckoff deftly chronicles Ponzi's mercurial rise and fall as he conjured up one get-rich-quick scheme after another. Charming, gregarious and popular, Ponzi devised and carried out the scheme that carries his name in 1920 in the open (and with a brief period of approval from Boston's newspapers and financial sector). Many investors did indeed double their investments, as Ponzi would use money of new investors to pay old investors, and Ponzi himself became a millionaire. Eventually, Zuckoff shows, the Boston Post uncovered this "robbing Peter to pay Paul" system (as it was then known), and Ponzi's life unraveled. Zuckoff provides not only a definitive portrait of Ponzi's life but also insights into immigrant life and the social world of early 20th-century Boston.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* His scheme had been around for years and was fairly simple: offer to pay investors huge returns in a short time frame, paying the early investors with capital from later ones, and abscond with the money before the whole thing collapses. Previously, the game was known as "robbing Peter to pay Paul," but Charles Ponzi did it on a grand scale in 1920, and the scheme bears his name to this day. At the height of his operations in Boston, he had a large staff, salespeople, and numerous branches throughout the Northeast. His deposits peaked at $15 million, and his "customers" included much of Boston's police force. Zuckoff's biography of Ponzi is meticulously accurate, based on memoirs and newspaper accounts of the day, weaving the story of the rise of this small-time Italian immigrant with that of Richard Grozier, second-generation editor of the Boston Post, living under the shadow of his father and out to make a name for himself. The reader, knowing it all must end badly, cannot help but root for the deluded Ponzi, with his devoted wife, Rose, blindly loyal to him all the way to the heartbreaking conclusion. David Siegfried
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.6 out of 5 stars  59 reviews
30 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Friendly Thief April 4 2005
By R. Spell - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
We've all heard of the Ponzi Scheme, what they referred to in that era as "robbing Peter to pay Paul". But this well researched book traces the tragic story of how Charles Ponzi came to America, what he did before the Ponzi scheme and what happened to him afterwards. It would make a great movie! Situated in Boston, he ran ads for great returns and when many middle class people invested, publicity soon followed with various members of the media warning that it was a scam. No common criminal, he took the press on and argued the opposite winning much public support.

It is a fascinating tale! The side story of the faithful wife who only wanted her husband at home without the money and the final outcome of their marriage is also heartwarming and tragic.

I like business biographies and this certainly qualifies although I wouldn't consider him the classic success story. This book offers so much more with detailed history of that time period and the roles regulators, politicians and media played in society at that time. And the story itself is charming in many ways. Charles Ponzi was a common man that on the surface became wealthy and everyone rooted for him. But it only lasted so long. If you have interest in finance you will like this book. If you have interest in the history of the early 1900s in this growing country you will be interested. If you like novels and good character growth I think this will also be of interest as it reads like a novel as he develops his scheme.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ponzi: Seductive Scam Artist June 20 2005
By Helder Gil - Published on Amazon.com
Zuckoff has written a first-class biography of Charles Ponzi. His writing style keeps the reader deeply engrossed in the story and wanting to know what happens next. Zuckoff recounts various communications between the main characters, all of which he says comes from letters, newspaper accounts, etc. He also does a very nice job paralleling the lives of the scam artist, and the newspaper publisher who finally exposes the scam.

Although he was hardly the first to come up with the con game, Ponzi will forever be associated with pyramid schemes and "robbing Peter to pay Paul" schemes. The way he did it was brilliantly simple: Come up with a way of making money that seems completely legal and is relatively easy to explain. Market that scheme to folks that are in the same boat as you (e.g., same industry, ethnicity, religion, neighborhood, etc.) Pay the astronomical returns to the initial investors. Then let their word of mouth recommendations bring in additional investors. Repeat the process and watch the money pour in.

It is difficult to read this book and not empathize with Ponzi. Even though the reader knows that many of Ponzi's "investors" will become victims of the fraud, Ponzi's amazingly seductive personality is able to win over most people. The question that lingers throughout most of the book is whether Ponzi ever actually intended to pay off the investors with a legal - and feasible - money-making idea, or whether he simply wanted to scam the victims out of their life savings. The answer is finally provided by Ponzi himself towards the end of his life.

This book - and Ponzi's story - serves as a great reminder of the old adage that if something sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. But what is truly amazing is that these same Ponzi-type schemes continue even today, whether it is stock "pump and dump" scams, late-night infomercials on how to get rich quick, or large-scale Enron-like frauds. By appealing to people's instinctive desire to make money, the end result of these schemes is usually the same: the investor becomes a victim. This book makes for a great read, as well as a great life lesson.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great telling of the story behind a household name Aug. 1 2005
By M. Strong - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I love books that tell the story behind a well-known phrase with a little-known background, so Ponzi's Scheme was a natural selection for me. Turns out it was a great choice. The story of Charles Ponzi, an Italian immigrant to America, is a fast-moving rollercoaster of a tale told with skill by Zuckoff.

The result is a very readable book with a combination of good lessons for its reader about too-good-to-be-true propositions, great characters, good history, financial lessons, and a tradgedy of Shakesperean proportions.

Highly recommended for history buffs, fans of character-driven stories, people in financial markets, and anyone who's curious to know the story behind the phrase "Ponzi Scheme."
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fun Read, but Possible Interpretation Problems March 31 2006
By D. N. Roth - Published on Amazon.com
Zuckoff paints Ponzi as someone who desperately wanted his international reply coupon scheme to work legitimately, and then merely didn't know exactly how to get out of it and "go straight." He almost makes you feel sorry for the guy.

To his credit, Zuckoff does explain his sources very well in the back of the book. However, even using the substantiated facts that he himself presented, one wonders if Ponzi really was trying to legitimate his career, pressures from his wife and mother aside.

Even according to Zuckoff's own account, trouble followed Ponzi like mice to cheese. How many times have you been arrested? Me neither. Given the series of events and the fact that Ponzi kept lying to everyone (even behind his facade of charming confidence), I don't think he deserves an iota of sympathy (although Zuckoff and the New York Times did bring up interesting questions about Ponzi's investors and their characters--the desire to get something for nothing).

Most telling are Ponzi's quotes and actions after turning himself in for the fraud committed under the auspices of the Securities Exchange Company and serving his prison term for that. Here we see the desperate thief running from the authorities and making a pretty stark "confession" (as Zuckoff states) later in life which shows little remorse.

I wonder if Ponzi's character was more consistent than Zuckoff describes through this book. He started off as a person of questionable character and ended the same way. I just don't think he was as desperate to legitimize his scheme as Zuckoff makes him out to be (he seemed to do a lot of thinking about how to manipulate the coupons, rather than doing; and what he really got close to doing (stealing from his own bank), wasn't very legitimate).

His charming character and devotion to mother and wife aside, the guy seemed to be a crook through and through.

Still, it's a fun read; it does make you think about who Ponzi really was.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Engaging and Entertaining April 29 2005
By Sreeram Ramakrishnan - Published on Amazon.com
In a very engaging account of the arguably the "best" financial scam (before Enron days atleast), Zuckoff narrates the fascinating story an Italian immigrant to the US and his seemingly unending tale of woe, charm, financial trickery - all combined! As the plot (even though this is an actual account of real events, it reads as if it were one of the best written thriller!) develops, one cannot but imagine if any other person could have survived the events Ponzi had to suffer through. Using a brilliant narrative technique, the author develops the main actors' roles in a systematic manner, most notably those of Charles Ponzi, his wife, and Gozier (publisher).

Each chapter also includes a reproduction of a relevant photograph obtained from the famed Post, Boston Library and other sources. Those pictures are so well chosen that they capture the essence of the ensuing chapter very well.

As can be expected from a professor of journalism, the book is well documented with plenty of detailed notes and bibliography for any serious reader.

It should be pointed out that the Epilogue should not be forgotten at all. The unravelling of the "plot" happens mostly in the epilogue and contains numerous twists and turns associated with the fascinating life of Charles Ponzi.

An excellent read, but make sure you have cleared out an entire day or weekend for it, because once you start reading it, you wont stop until you are at the last page!

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