Prosecuting women who operated and promoted a £21 million pyramid scheme cost taxpayers at least £1.4 million - but those convicted paid back as little as £1 each.
The get-rich-quick con, named Give and Take (G&T), fleeced at least 10,000 people as it spread across the country between May 2008 and April 2009.
Bristol Crown Court heard victims were encouraged to “beg, borrow or steal” to take part in the scam, which promised £23,000 for each £3,000 investment if a player recruited two friends.
G&T committee members pocketed up to £92,000 each, while up to 88 per cent of their victims lost between £3,000 and £15,000.
The scheme generated £21 million before it was closed down, with the money paid to winners or lost on pyramid charts that never reached fruition.
Eleven women became the first in the UK to be prosecuted for such a scheme under legislation from the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Act.
Six of the group, convicted of operating and promoting the scheme, paid back a total of £535,454, in confiscation orders and prosecution costs.
One woman, who promoted the scheme, paid back £20,143, but two others were ordered to hand over just £1 as they had no realisable assets.
Figures released following a Freedom of Information request by the Press Association showed it cost “not less” than £1,465,000 for the prosecution.
This figure does not include defence costs, legal aid costs or the costs of the courts hosting the trial and related hearings between 2009 and 2015.
A spokeswoman for the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) said there was a “strong public interest” in bringing the case to act as a deterrent, to warn the public and achieve justice for victims. “Investigating and prosecuting complex economic cases of this kind are invariably costly, often taking a significant time to investigate fully and resulting in lengthy trials,” she said.
“In particular, they will typically involve sifting through millions of physical and electronic documents, complicated money tracing exercises and interviewing of a large number of potential witnesses. All this calls for a team of staff working full-time, including expert staff, and the advice of specialist counsel.
“The costs associated with this particular case are in no way unusual or unexpected for a case of this kind.”
Judge Mark Horton ordered the defendants to pay back individual amounts following a proceeds of crime hearing at Bristol Crown Court in July.
Chairwoman Laura Fox, 70, was ordered to pay £156,000; 69-year-old treasurer Jennifer Smith-Hayes, £111,900; and secretary Susan Crane, also 69, £81,170.
Stephen Blake, senior director for criminal enforcement at the CMA, urged members of the public to avoid such schemes.