Wednesday, January 6, 2016

2015: (Another) Year for Ponzi Schemes

According to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Homero Joshua Garza used his two Bitcoin mining companies to conduct a Ponzi scheme that collected $20 million from over 10,000 investors between August and December of 2014.[i]

Bitcoins, or other such cryptocurrencies, are digital methods of exchange that exist outside of our common centralized-banking system. These cryptocurrencies occur in encrypted blocks, finite in number, which can be “mined” using powerful computers to unencrypt the information. In doing so, the encryption of remaining units becomes more difficult, artificially creating scarcity and value.[ii]

Mining can also create value for those computers who achieve decryption, through the awarding of units of virtual currency. According to the SEC, Garza convinced investors that his companies had the computing ability to mine and achieve this decryption, thus earning value based on a physical piece of hardware that would operate virtually.[iii]  

Included in the complaint filed by the SEC on December 1, 2015, Garza did not own enough computing power to fulfill its promises to investors, conducted little to no mining activity, and made payments on investments with money collected from other investors.[iv]

According to Paul G. Levenson, Director of the SEC’s Boston Regional Office, “Garza and his companies cloaked their scheme in technological sophistication and jargon, but the fraud was simple to its core: they sold what they did not own, misrepresented what they were selling, and robbed one investor to pay another.”[v]

Garza was not original in his tactics. In 1919, Charles Ponzi, for whom the scheme would eventually be named, saw an opportunity to make money utilizing the unequal exchange rate between the United States and Spain, the latter’s currency one-sixth the value of the former. At this time, there existed an International Postal Reply Coupon (IPRC) which was used in small, international transactions. Ponzi realized he could convert American dollars into Spanish pesetas, purchase IPRCs in Spain, redeem them for US postage, and sell that postage for a profit. Thus was born The Security and Exchange Company, the seemingly legitimate front for his get-rich-quick scheme.[vi]

Ponzi initially offered a 40 percent return in 90 days for investments, though later increased that to 50 percent, and added a 100 percent return for 90-day notes. He deposited so much of others’ money in a mutual savings bank, he became the major share-holder and elected himself president and lived a life of lavish luxury. [vii]

Newspaper articles and a government audit eventually brought the scheme to an end, having lost $97.53 of every $100. After serving three-and-a-half years in prison for grand larceny and use of the mail to defraud, Ponzi was rearrested and skipped bail, going to Florida under an assumed name. He was sent to jail there for real estate fraud, promising a 200 percent return on investment in 60 days. After again skipping bail, he was recaptured and served another seven years on his original sentence.[viii]

Garza has shown Ponzi’s tactics are alive and well in the financial industry. If you believe you may have fallen victim to such a scheme, contact an attorney for further investigation. Food for thought…

[i] SEC Charges Bitcoin Mining Companies [electronic format] (2015 December 1). Retrieved from
[ii] Pulliam-Moore, C. (2014 August 12) Consumer Protection Agency Urges Americans to Beware of Bitcoin, Other Cryptocurrencies [electronic format]. Retrieved from
[iii] SEC Charges Bitcoin Mining Companies [electronic format] (2015 December 1). Retrieved from
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Ibid.
[vi] San Jose̒ State University Department of Economics (n.d.) The Nature and History of Ponzi Schemes [electronic format]. Retrieved from
[vii] Ibid.
[viii] Ibid.

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