In these trying financial and debt-ridden times, any money-making scheme sounds better than it should.

The purveyors of Ponzi schemes step in and millions of Africans hand over their savings. In a Ponzi scheme, Peter is robbed to pay Paul. It promises a return on investments, with a claim it is secure; but there is no real investment.

The operator of the scheme uses the money deposited by early investors to pay the first dividend, until investors feel comfortable and decide to invest more. Eventually the scheme falls apart as more cash is taken out and fewer people join.

Yoliswa May (not her real name), of Johannesburg, regrets the day she heard the word Ponzi.

“I should have listened to my inner voice,” she says after R30,000 (around $2,200) went down the drain.

“It’s upsetting to think of how much money I threw away. I lost more than I gained, because I reinvested my returns. I am like a person who walked out of their house with money and got mugged.”

Encouraged by family, she fell into the trap and joined MMM – a worldwide Ponzi scheme run by a convicted Russian fraudster Sergey Mavrodi, who swindled 10,000 Russians out of 110 million roubles ($4.3 million at the time).

“My sister told me of MMM [South Africa], because she had invested with it and received money back. The second time her investment matured, she showed me and said ‘join man, this thing works,’” she says.

Mugshots of Charles Ponzi

May, in a heartbeat, cashed in her savings and invested R20,000 ($1,520) in MMM and a month later had about R26,000 ($1,900) in her bank account.

“I was excited after I received the money. I believed that it works. If I didn’t receive the R26,000, I would have never invested again. I chose to invest more money because I was told the more you put in the more you get. So I did just that,” she says.

It promises 30% returns in a new world order with its own currency – the mavros – making it harder for law enforcement to pin it down. It works on a “get help and give help system”.

There is no centralized bank; one member transfers money to another.

May topped up her investment to R30,000 ($2,200). Then things got ugly.

“Two weeks later, our mavros were frozen. They still are. Apparently there was a panic, and a lot of people were withdrawing at the same time so there needed to be a restart,” says May.

“When everything was happening, at the back of my mind I knew that we were warned that things would end this way. The authorities warned us to stay away from MMM because once our money is gone, it would be untraceable, but we didn’t listen. However members remain positive that we will get our money back. It’s a lesson learned. I will never get involved with Ponzi schemes again.”

While May has her head in her hands, Sifiso Sithebe, of Durban, is on his way to the bank with a smile on his face.

“It changed my life. My life has just never been better,” he says.

Sithebe is a breadwinner for his wife and three children but was drowning in debt before he invested R1,000 ($78) in MMM.

“I needed to settle my debt. My family and I were struggling financially. But when I became a member, money was no longer a problem. I could do more than I had planned to with the money I received,” he says.

“I renovated my house and even bought myself a second-hand car. If I never joined, I would have never been able to do any of that; that is why I don’t regret joining.”

Loyiso Heart, a businesswoman from East London, went into MMM with the same hope.

Tired of low returns from the bank, she invested R20,000 ($1,500) in MMM and her confidence in the system grew.  Her next attempt, however, was disastrous.

“My mother and I got together and invested R50,000 ($3,900). Two months later our money went down the drain. The stupid thing that I did was to move to MMM Nigeria after the MMM South Africa saga… I was devastated.”

Heart says, for a long time after both systems collapsed, she had hope it would recover.

“I don’t think they will ever return,” says Heart now.

National Consumer Commission (NCC) spokesman, Trevor Hattingh, says Ponzi schemes are popular because the returns on investment are high, but so is the risk.

“Investing money in a pyramid scheme is a risk because such schemes do not offer any guarantee that you will get your money back. The returns are also not guaranteed, and because the scheme is not registered as a business, or have physical offices, you will not easily be able to track them down if they do not pay you out,” he says.

They are also illegal.

“You run the risk of being prosecuted by law enforcement and other regulatory authorities in South Africa because pyramid schemes are prohibited in terms of Section 43 of the Consumer Protection Act… Consumers should note that they have no legal recourse when a pyramid collapses and they run a risk of losing all their invested money. A pyramid scheme is essentially a get-rich-quick scheme and people join it to make a quick buck. In doing so they obviously do not consider the risks involved,” says Hattingh.

Hatting warns consumers to be cautious with their money.

“Consumers looking to invest money should do due diligence on schemes before deciding to invest in them. Do research about companies and most importantly establish if they are registered to offer financial services. The objective of [Ponzi schemes] is to defraud participants. People are drawn into participation and end up losing their money. There are always more people that lose money than those who gain or benefit from the scheme,” he says.

The problem is so widespread that African governments are discussing working together to get rid of the illegal schemes.

On its website, MMM claims that it is a “community” of people that are simply assisting each other when in need.  It claims it’s a stokvel. A stokvel is an investment society to which members regularly contribute an agreed amount and from which they receive a lump-sum payment.

Worryingly, MMM has all the signs of a Ponzi scheme but its participants are adamant it’s a stokvel.

Miziyonke Mtshali, COO of the National Stokvel Association of South Africa (Nasasa), says this is common.

“We have seen Ponzi schemes that pose as stokvels in order to gain acceptance and support in the communities. We usually learn of new schemes through customers who contact our call center to verify the registration of the schemes they have been approached to join,” says Mtshali.

“In order to gain the trust of the public, these schemes claim that they are members of Nasasa.”

Mtshali warns people to be vigilant as they work with the National Prosecuting Attorney (NPA) to fight such schemes.

Despite these investigations, Mavrodi warns his participants on the MMM South Africa website not to pay attention to ‘negativity’.

“We’re fighting against the world financial system, helping ordinary people, breaking the rules and declaring it expressly – what is to be expected then? It’s only natural they are going to throw all kinds of obstacles our way. Have you seen what happened during Trump’s election campaign when he decided to go against the rules? Have you seen the river of lies and slander the “fair and independent” media poured down on him? It’s about the same thing,” he says.

While Mavrodi claims that all MMM participants have a good story to tell, May is still waiting for her money.

The Godfather Of The Ponzi Scheme

Charles Ponzi is the Italian father of Ponzi schemes. He swindled about $7 million, in the early 1900s, from new investors to existing ones.
Born in Italy in 1882, he moved to Boston, United States, in 1903 and worked as a clerk. He was no stranger to fraud and corruption. He scammed people by promising them a whopping 50% interest in 45 days, or 100% in 90 days. He earned $15 million and became a millionaire in just six months.
His scam was based on the purchase of International Reply Coupons (IRC), which postal senders provide to receivers to pay for the cost of a reply.
Justice eventually caught up with Ponzi and he was charged with 86 counts of mail fraud and faced a lifetime in jail. He pleaded guilty to mail fraud and spent 14 years behind bars.
He died on January 18, 1949, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.