But in this particular case, his name isn’t Bernie Madoff. It’s Ian Bick.
By 2013, Bick was an 18-year-old event promoter with multiple businesses in Danbury, Connecticut. On the outside, they seemed to be the successful ventures of an entrepreneurial prodigy. But behind the scenes, “it was a free-for-all s**tshow,” Bick says in “Generation Hustle,” HBO Max’s new anthology series about the young, ambitious and fraudulent.
While Bick says he wasn’t trying to run a Ponzi scheme — “I looked at it as taking one loan to pay off another loan,” Bick explains in the series — the feds disagreed. In 2016, Bick was convicted of defrauding his business investors of nearly $500,000.
1. Charles Ponzi — $15 million
Compared to today’s notorious cons, the loss associated with this scam in 1920 might seem a pittance. But in the tale of Charles Ponzi, it wasn’t just the size of the swindle but the speed with which it was done. According to Smithsonian Magazine, Ponzi made an estimated $15 million in eight months by convincing lenders he could make them rich with investments in international postal reply coupons. His story was so infamous that the basics of the pyramid scheme — take money from a new investor to pay back an old one — began to carry his name, despite the fact that he wasn’t the first to do it.
Known as a co-founder of EarthLink, the internet service provider that launched in the mid-90s, prosecutors say Reed Slatkin’s massive Ponzi scheme began long before the company existed. In 2003, the former Santa Barbara investment manager pleaded guilty to defrauding his investors of more than $500 million across 15 years, starting in 1986.
5. Scott Rothstein — $1.2 billion
It isn’t always finance types who run the biggest scams: Scott Rothstein used his Fort Lauderdale law firm to run an eye-popping $1.2 billion Ponzi scheme. According to the Miami Herald, Rothstein convinced his investors to buy into bogus legal settlements. He was sentenced to 50 years in prison in 2010 — a term that’s held despite his attempts at reduction.
6. Tom Petters — $3.7 billion
Businessman Tom Petters was accused of stealing money from hedge funds, missionaries and pastors alike, according to the New York Times. Petters promised investors that by pouring money into his organization, they’d fund the purchase of retail merchandise that would then be sold to discount retailers for a profit. But that’s not what happened, and in 2010 Petters was sentenced to 50 years in prison. The scam is reportedly the biggest in Minnesota history.