As cryptocurrencies continue to gain popularity and attract investors, it is crucial to be aware of the potential risks involved. Among these risks are pyramid and Ponzi schemes, which have plagued the financial world for decades. This article aims to provide an overview of these fraudulent schemes, highlight their differences, and offer guidance on protecting oneself from falling victim to them.

What is a Ponzi scheme? 

A Ponzi scheme is a fraudulent investment operation that lures investors with the promise of high and consistent returns on their investments. The scheme is named after Charles Ponzi, an infamous Italian fraudster who operated one of the most notorious Ponzi schemes in the early 20th century.

In a Ponzi scheme, the perpetrator typically presents themselves as a skilled and knowledgeable investor who claims to have discovered a secret or exclusive investment strategy that generates extraordinary profits. They entice individuals to invest their money with the promise of quick and substantial returns, often far exceeding what traditional investments can offer.

The key characteristic of a Ponzi scheme is that the returns paid to existing investors are not generated by legitimate investment activities or profits but are sourced from the funds contributed by new investors. The fraudster uses the funds from new investors to pay off the promised returns to earlier investors, creating an illusion of profitability and attracting more people to invest.

To maintain the facade of a successful investment, Ponzi scheme operators may provide falsified financial statements or send out periodic account statements showing consistent and impressive returns. They often encourage investors to reinvest their earnings to compound their profits or offer referral bonuses to incentivize existing investors to bring in new participants.

Ponzi schemes can collapse when there is a shortage of new investors entering the scheme, making it difficult to pay off existing investors. At this point, the fraudster may disappear or be exposed, leading to the scheme’s unraveling. When the scheme collapses, the majority of participants are left with significant financial losses, as there are insufficient funds to cover the promised returns.

What is a Pyramid scheme? 

A pyramid scheme is a deceptive business model that recruits participants by promising them high profits or financial rewards primarily for recruiting others into the scheme rather than from the sale of legitimate products or services. The structure of a pyramid scheme resembles the shape of a pyramid, with a few individuals at the top who recruit a large number of participants forming subsequent layers beneath them.

In a pyramid scheme, participants are typically required to make an upfront payment or invest a certain amount of money to join the scheme. They are then encouraged to recruit others into the scheme, often their family, friends, or acquaintances, who will also make payments or investments. These newly recruited individuals form the next level of the pyramid, and they, in turn, are expected to recruit others beneath them.

Participants are incentivized to recruit more members by the promise of receiving a portion of the funds or investments made by those they recruit. As the pyramid grows larger, each layer becomes exponentially wider, with the initial recruiters earning a percentage from the recruits they bring in, and so on.

The primary focus of a pyramid scheme is on recruiting new members, rather than selling actual products or services. While some pyramid schemes may have products or services as a front, the emphasis is often on recruitment rather than the value of the products themselves. In some cases, the products may be overpriced or of low quality, serving as a means to justify the flow of money within the scheme.

Pyramid schemes are unsustainable in the long run because the number of new recruits required to sustain the structure becomes unattainable. Eventually, as recruitment slows down or reaches a saturation point, the scheme collapses, leaving a large portion of participants at the bottom of the pyramid with financial losses.

One of the most well-known pyramid schemes in the cryptocurrency realm was the case of OneCoin. OneCoin, which operated from 2014 to 2016, claimed to be a cryptocurrency that offered massive returns on investment. However, the scheme lacked a public blockchain and verifiable transactions, and the primary focus was on recruitment rather than legitimate cryptocurrency operations. The scheme amassed billions of dollars before it was exposed as a fraud, leading to the arrest and conviction of several individuals involved.

Ponzi vs. pyramid: Similarities and differences 

Ponzi schemes and pyramid schemes share some similarities in their fraudulent nature and reliance on new participants. However, there are distinct differences between the two schemes in terms of their structure, focus, and operation.

Similarities between Ponzi schemes and pyramid schemes:

  1. Recruitment of new participants: Both schemes heavily rely on the continuous recruitment of new participants to sustain the illusion of profitability. The influx of new investors is essential for providing funds to pay off existing participants and maintaining the scheme’s facade.
  2. Unsustainable nature: Both Ponzi and pyramid schemes are ultimately unsustainable. They rely on a constant flow of new investors to sustain the promised returns or rewards. As the recruitment pool diminishes or becomes exhausted, the schemes collapse, leaving the majority of participants with losses.

Differences between Ponzi schemes and pyramid schemes:

  1. Structure and focus: Ponzi schemes primarily revolve around investment activities, where individuals are promised high returns on their investments. The scheme operator claims to generate profits through various investment strategies, but in reality, the returns are paid from new investors’ funds. In contrast, pyramid schemes focus on recruitment as the primary means of generating profits, with participants earning commissions or bonuses for bringing in new members.
  2. Source of payments: In a Ponzi scheme, the returns paid to existing investors come from the funds contributed by new investors. The scheme operator may use the new investments to create the illusion of profits and credibility. In a pyramid scheme, participants make payments or investments to join the scheme, and the recruitment fees or investments collected from new members are used to pay commissions or rewards to those higher up in the pyramid.
  3. Product or service involvement: Ponzi schemes may present themselves as legitimate investment opportunities and may involve actual investments in assets, securities, or financial instruments. Pyramid schemes, on the other hand, often lack a genuine product or service of value. While some pyramid schemes may have products or services as a front, the primary focus is on recruitment, with the products serving as a disguise for the underlying fraudulent scheme.
  4. Compliance with regulations: Ponzi schemes often operate outside of regulatory frameworks and may involve illegal activities. Pyramid schemes, although also fraudulent, may sometimes attempt to operate within legal boundaries by associating their scheme with the sale of products or services. However, they still violate laws in many jurisdictions due to their deceptive nature.

How to protect yourself

  1. Research and due diligence: Thoroughly investigate any investment opportunity before committing your funds. Look for verifiable information about the company, its operations, and its track record. Be cautious if the promised returns seem too good to be true.
  2. Regulatory compliance: Ensure that the investment opportunity is compliant with relevant regulations and registered with appropriate authorities. Check if the company has the necessary licenses to operate legally.
  3. Beware of unrealistic promises: Exercise caution if the investment guarantees unusually high or consistent returns with little or no risk. Investments always carry some level of risk, and schemes that promise otherwise are often fraudulent.
  4. Diversify your investments: Avoid putting all your eggs in one basket. Diversify your investment portfolio across different asset classes and industries to minimize the risks.
  5. Understand the underlying technology: In the case of cryptocurrency schemes, take the time to understand the technology and the fundamentals of how cryptocurrencies work. Familiarize yourself with reputable cryptocurrencies and their legitimate use cases. This knowledge will help you discern between genuine investment opportunities and potential scams.
  6. Seek professional advice: Consult with a trusted financial advisor or investment professional before making any significant investment decisions. They can provide valuable insights and help you identify red flags or potential risks.
  7. Be cautious of pressure tactics: Be wary of investment opportunities that employ high-pressure sales tactics or insist on immediate action. Scammers often try to create a sense of urgency to prevent you from conducting proper due diligence.
  8. Trust your instincts: If something feels off or too good to be true, trust your gut instincts. If an investment opportunity raises doubts or appears suspicious, it’s better to err on the side of caution and walk away.
  9. Report suspicious activity: If you come across a potential pyramid or Ponzi scheme, report it to the relevant authorities or regulatory bodies. By reporting such activities, you can help protect others from falling victim to the same fraudulent scheme.


Pyramid and Ponzi schemes pose significant risks to investors in the cryptocurrency space. Understanding the differences between these fraudulent schemes, conducting thorough research, and seeking professional advice are essential steps to protect yourself. By staying informed, being cautious, and following these guidelines, you can reduce the chances of falling victim to such scams and safeguard your hard-earned money in the crypto world.


What is a Ponzi scheme?

A Ponzi scheme is a fraudulent investment scheme where early investors are paid with funds from new investors instead of actual profits. The scheme relies on a continuous flow of new investors to sustain payouts. When new investments slow down, the scheme collapses, resulting in financial losses for most participants.

What is a pyramid scheme?

A pyramid scheme is a deceptive business model where participants earn money primarily by recruiting others, rather than through product sales. Participants at the top recruit those below them, who then recruit others, forming a pyramid-like structure. As the scheme grows, those at the top earn commissions from the recruitment fees or investments made by participants below. Pyramid schemes collapse when recruitment becomes unsustainable, causing financial losses for the majority.