The trustee in the Bernard Madoff fraud started sending out nearly $356 million in checks last week to investors cheated in the giant Ponzi scheme, bringing the total reimbursements so far to more than $7.2 billion.

With his fifth payment to Madoff's victims, trustee Irving Picard said the total recoveries given to victims with approved claims amounts to almost 50 percent of the estimated $17.6 billion lost in Wall Street's largest fraud.

As the latest round of checks went out on Friday, 1,160 accounts out of 2,216 have been reimbursed in full on their original investments, Picard said. The smallest payment sent out was for $431, with the largest being about $67.1 million, he added.

Since Madoff's investment firm folded in December 2008, Picard has been on a worldwide quest to recover funds to give back to investors. So far, Picard and his law firm BakerHostetler have located and recovered through litigation some $10.55 billion in customer money.

The claims eligible to share in the recovery are those that are approved as "net losers," meaning they invested more money with Madoff than they took out. "Net winners," customers who took out of their accounts more than they invested, have had to pay back the difference and aren't eligible to recover anything.

The nonprofit Securities Investor Protection Corporation has also advanced $823.7 million to approved customers, an amount included in the $7.2 billion repaid. SIPC also pays Picard's fees.

David Sheehan, counsel to Picard, predicted 2015 would be a "significant year" for more recoveries.

One group of Madoff investors that benefits from the current 48.8 percent recovery level is the partnership that owns the New York Mets. Under a 2012 federal court settlement, the partnership owes Picard $162 million but gets a bookkeeping credit each time Picard makes payment to investors.

So far, the Mets investors have a credit of $87 million. However, under the settlement the partners would be obligated to pay Picard the shortfall if total customer repayments by Picard don't amount to about 92 percent of the $162 million by June 1, less any later recoveries. Under the settlement, key partners Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz guarantee up to $29 million.