Many investors use the Internet and social media to help them with investment decisions. While these online tools can provide many benefits for investors, these same tools can make attractive targets for criminals. Criminals are quick to adapt to new technologies – and the Internet is no exception.
The Internet is a useful way to reach a mass audience without spending a lot of time or money. A website, online message, or social media site can reach large numbers with minimum effort. It's easy for fraudsters to make their messages look real and credible and sometimes hard for investors to tell the difference between fact and fiction. That's why you should think twice before you invest your money in any opportunity you find online.
The key to avoiding investment fraud on social media sites or elsewhere on the Internet is to be an educated investor. To learn specific steps you can take, see What You Can Do to Avoid Investment Fraud. Below, we tell you where various types of fraud may show up online.
Social media, such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and LinkedIn, have become key tools for U.S. investors. Whether they are seeking research on particular stocks, background information on a broker-dealer or investment adviser, guidance on an overall investment strategy, up to date news or to simply want to discuss the markets with others, investors turn to social media. Social media also offers a number of features that criminals may find attractive. Fraudsters can use social media in their efforts to appear legitimate, to hide behind anonymity, and to reach many people at low cost.
Always be wary of unsolicited offers to invest. Unsolicited sales pitches may be part of a fraudulent investment scheme. If you receive an unsolicited message from someone you don’t know containing a “can’t miss” investment, your best move maybe to pass up the “opportunity” and report it to the SEC Complaint Center.
While legitimate online newsletters contain valuable information, others are tools for fraud. Some companies pay online newsletters to "tout" or recommend their stocks. Touting isn’t illegal as long as the newsletters disclose who paid them, how much they’re getting paid, and the form of the payment, usually cash or stock. But fraudsters often lie about the payments they receive and their track records.
Fraudulent promoters may claim to offer independent, unbiased recommendations in newsletters when they stand to profit from convincing others to buy or sell certain stocks. They may spread false information to promote worthless stocks.
The fact that these so-called “newsletters” may be advertised on legitimate websites, including on the online financial pages of news organizations, does not mean that they are not fraudulent. To learn more, read our tips for checking out newsletters.
Online bulletin boards, chat rooms and social media sites are a way for investors to share information. While some messages may be true, many turn out to be bogus – or even scams. Fraudsters may use online discussions to pump up a company or pretend to reveal "inside" information about upcoming announcements, new products, or lucrative contracts.
You never know for certain who you're dealing with, or whether they're credible, because many sites allow users to hide their identity behind multiple aliases. People claiming to be unbiased observers may actually be insiders, large shareholders, or paid promoters. One person can easily create the illusion of widespread interest in a small, thinly traded stock by posting numerous messages under various aliases.
Other online offerings may not be fraudulent per se, but may nonetheless fail to comply with the applicable registration provisions of the federal securities laws. While the federal securities laws require the registration of solicitations or “offerings,” some offerings are exempt. Always determine if a securities offering is registered with the SEC or a state, or is otherwise exempt from registration, before investing.
“Spam" – junk e-mail – often is used to promote bogus investment schemes or to spread false information about a company. With a bulk e-mail program, spammers can send personalized messages to millions of people at once for much less than the cost of cold calling or traditional mail. Many scams, including advance fee frauds, use spam to reach potential victims.
Many of the frauds that show up on social media are not unique to the Internet. These frauds range from “pump and dump” schemes to promises of “guaranteed returns,” from “High Yield Investment Programs” to affinity fraud. To learn more about these frauds, see Types of Fraud.