3 Famous White Collar Criminals (And How They Changed Everything)

When I say "millions of dollars" what's the first thing you think of? Is it Scrooge McDuck, hanging out in his vault/pool of gold coins, is it movie stars making a third movie in a series nobody wanted, or is it a career filled with wealth and opportunity that eventually ends in a prison cell? If it's the latter, then you've probably been influenced by one of the three men listed below, who each rose to notoriety by committing a white collar crime that siphoned millions from their investors, employees, and companies and ended up with a prison sentence.

But who's at the top of the list for the worst white collar criminals in our recent history? Let's start with these three men, their crimes, and how they affected our judiciary laws for decades to come.

1. Charles Ponzi
Yep, "Ponzi Scheme" is actually named after someone. Charles Ponzi came to fame during the 1920's in the United States after it was found out that he had bilked millions from investors. His scheme used money from original investors to buy discounted postage coupons, (making Ponzi upwards of $250,000 a day,) while using other investors' money to pay the original investors a return, essentially robbing Peter to pay Paul, and keeping any profit for himself.

Sewell Chan sheds a little light on how he was able to swindle so many out of millions: "Mr. Ponzi...was a fast-talking immigrant and college dropout, whose scheme rested on the eagerness of ordinary working people to benefit from the wealth they saw being generated around them during the last Gilded Age."

Ponzi was eventually found out and served 14 years in prison and, in true schadenfreude, died penniless in Brazil.

How he changed everything: A mentor for Bernie Madoff and Friends, Ponzi's scams were so devastating to his investors that his name became synonymous with financial misdoings. Even if you still have no idea what exactly Madoff, Jack Abramoff, or Tyco did, you'll still know "Ponzi Scheme."

2. Kenneth Lay
If you don't know the name Kenneth Lay right away then you'll probably be familiar with the company he ran: Enron.

Enron rose to become one of top energy companies in America, until its shady business dealings were found out. In the end, there was nothing left thanks to a series of financial misdealings that bankrupted investors and employees.

Lay died before he was able to be convicted of the charges against him, so has never been fully convicted (or exonerated) of the misdoings that he may or may not have known his company was involved with.

Ryan Blanch, an attorney at The Blanch Law Firm which specializes in white collar crime, explains the fallout a little further: "Most would probably agree that Lay committed malum in se crimes... which essentially means that the actor knows it's wrong, whether or not he/she is aware of the law that criminalizes the behavior... although they were white collar in nature. But many since have been caught in the wake of the legislation that followed the Enron scandal."

How he changed everything: Enron became the first domino to fall in a series of staggering findings regarding corporate profits. Their (and Lay's) downfall prompted the creation of the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley law and expanded SEC regulatory requirements.

3. John Rigas
Rigas was the founder and CEO of Adelphia Communications, one of the largest cable companies in the country, until he was removed in 2002 once it was discovered he and family members had stolen $3.1 billion from the company and its investors. Adelphia went under and Rigas was sentenced to 15 years in prison. (He was released this year due to ailing health.)

"John is a master politician. He's a fundraiser too, and renowned for working a crowd. He can be a real artist," according to Rance Baxter, who knew Rigas personally, and who also lost $96,000 due to Adelphia's downfall. Despite destroying the financial security for thousands of investors, Rigas received a warm welcome from dozens of residents in his hometown of Coudersport, PA.

How he changed everything: You know how you hate Time Warner and Comcast because they're one of your (few) options? They scooped up Adelphia's customer base and helped to secure their holds on the cable tv market, leaving little room for new companies to enter the market.

The silver lining in all of this history is that we now have laws that evolve to protect investors and require oversight into public business dealings. So the next time you take a look into an investment opportunity, thank the SEC for protecting you from scammers like Rigas, Ponzi, and Lay.