Douglas Harper's Etymology Dictionary
investment scam by which early investors are paid off from the contributions of later ones, 1957, in reference to Charles Ponzi (1882-1949), who perpetrated such a scam in U.S., 1919-20.
A Ponzi scheme (; also a Ponzi game) is a fraudulent investment operation where the operator, an individual or organization, pays returns to its investors from new capital paid to the operators by new investors, rather than from profit earned through legitimate sources. Operators of Ponzi schemes usually entice new investors by offering higher returns than other investments, in the form of short-term returns that are either abnormally high or unusually consistent.
Ponzi schemes occasionally begin as legitimate businesses, until the business fails to achieve the returns expected. The business becomes a Ponzi scheme if it then continues under fraudulent terms. Whatever the initial situation, the perpetuation of the high returns requires an ever-increasing flow of money from new investors to sustain the scheme.
The scheme is named after Charles Ponzi, who became notorious for using the technique in 1920. The idea, present in novels (for example, Charles Dickens' 1844 novel Martin Chuzzlewit and 1857 novel Little Dorrit each described such a scheme), was actually performed in real life by Ponzi who with his operation took in so much money that it was the first to become known throughout the United States. Ponzi's original scheme was based on the arbitrage of international reply coupons for postage stamps; however, he soon diverted investors' money to make payments to earlier investors and himself.
Usage examples of "ponzi scheme".
He was a naturalized American citizen and was serving his second term for using the mails to promote a Ponzi scheme.
Wendell was facing jail time after a Ponzi scheme he'd cooked up threatened to unravel, exposing his chicanery.