2009: The Year of the Ponzi

It was right at the end of 2008 that Bernard Madoff admitted to his sons that his multibillion investment business was "one big lie." As his scam unraveled in the courts and in the media throughout 2009, we learned that his $65 billion Ponzi scheme was the biggest in history, and he ended the year serving 150 years in federal prison.

But Madoff wasn't 2009's only Ponzi villain. Why did so many bogus investment schemes blow up last year?

It's the weak economy, said Scott Friestad of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Friestad, an associate director at the SEC's division of enforcement, said that Ponzi schemes depend on positive cash flows, but tough times make it hard to for the scammers to keep up.

"Eventually, it becomes a house of cards that collapses," said Friestad.

Friestad said he is optimistic about what the New Year might bring.

"We've had Ponzi schemes around for as long as we've been an agency," said Friestad, "but we're hoping that the past year has been an aberration."

A 2009 Ponzi Rogues' Gallery

Sir Allen Stanford

Size of Alleged Scheme: $8 Billion

Status: In Prison Awaiting a 2011 Trial

The Sir in financier Allen Stanford's name was conferred by the Caribbean nation of Antigua, and the Texan turned tanned offshore billionaire embraced the role of colonial gentleman with relish, even funding a cricket team. But Stanford became just plain Allen again, and a federal prisoner, after he was arrested in June on charges of orchestrating an $8 billion pyramid scheme. The Antiguan government has revoked his title.

Authorities say Stanford and his alleged co-conspirators engaged in a scheme to defraud investors who purchased approximately $7 billion of CDs from the Stanford International Bank, an off-shore entity based in Antigua. Stanford and his co-defendants are accused of misusing and misappropriating most of their investment assets. Stanford told ABC News he "would die and go to hell if it's a Ponzi scheme."

The indictment alleges that Stanford and his associates falsely claimed that the bank's assets had grown from $1.2 billion in 2001 to $8.5 billion by December 2008. The bank also allegedly made thousands of dollars in bribes to the former head of Antigua's Financial Services Authority to ensure the bank was not audited.

Stanford was charged with fraud, conspiracy and obstruction in a 21 count indictment. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of 250 years in a federal prison. The financier surrendered to the FBI in Virginia and has pleaded not guilty to the charges. He is being held in Texas and will not face trial until at least early 2011.

Tom Petters

Size of Scheme: $3.65 Billion

Status: In Prison Awaiting Sentencing

On December 2, a federal jury in Minneapolis convicted Tom Petters, 53, of carrying out a $3.65 billion Ponzi scheme. After a month-long trial, he was found guilty of ten counts of wire fraud, three counts of mail fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering, and five counts of money laundering.

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