The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) Office of Investor Education and Advocacy (“OIEA”) is issuing this Investor Alert to warn investors about fraudsters who may attempt to manipulate share prices by using social media to spread false or misleading information about stocks.
Social media and the Internet in general have become important tools for investors. Investors may use social media to research particular stocks, look up background information on a broker-dealer or investment adviser, find guidance on investing strategies, receive up-to-date news, and discuss the markets with others.
While social media can provide many benefits for investors, it also presents opportunities for fraudsters. Through social media, fraudsters can spread false or misleading information about a stock to large numbers of people with minimum effort and at a relatively low cost. They can also conceal their true identities by acting anonymously or even impersonating credible sources of market information.
One way fraudsters may exploit social media is to engage in a market manipulation, such as spreading false and misleading information about a company to affect the stock’s share price. Wrongdoers may perpetuate stock rumors on social media, as well as on online bulletin boards and in Internet chat rooms.
The false or misleading rumors may be positive or negative. For example, in a “pump-and-dump” scheme, promoters “pump” up the stock price by spreading positive rumors that incite a buying frenzy and they quickly “dump” their own shares before the hype ends. Typically, after the promoters profit from their sales, the stock price drops and the remaining investors lose money. In other instances, fraudsters start negative rumors urging investors to sell their shares so that the stock price plummets and the fraudsters take advantage of buying shares at the artificially low price.
SEC Enforcement Action Involving Social Media and Market Manipulation
The SEC has charged individuals for committing securities fraud through the use of social media.
In a recent Enforcement action, SEC v. Craig, the SEC accused an individual of manipulating the share prices of two publicly traded companies by tweeting false and misleading information. The defendant allegedly tweeted rumors that federal law enforcement was investigating a technology company for fraud, and that a biopharmaceutical company had tainted drug trial results and a federal government agency seized its papers. The SEC asserted that these deceptive tweets were made from Twitter accounts mimicking established securities research firms. The hoaxes allegedly caused investors to lose more than $1.5 million.
In SEC v. McKeown and Ryan, the SEC obtained judgments against a Canadian couple who used their website (PennyStockChaser), Facebook, and Twitter to pump up the stock of microcap companies, and then profited by selling shares of those companies. The couple allegedly received millions of shares of these companies as compensation and sold the shares around the time that their website predicted the stock price would massively increase (a practice known as “scalping”). The SEC’s complaint alleged that the couple did not fully disclose the compensation they received for touting the stocks. The court ordered the couple and their companies to pay more than $3.7 million in disgorgement for profits gained as a result of the alleged conduct, and ordered the couple to pay $300,000 in civil penalties.
Investors should be aware that fraudsters may use social media to impersonate an established source of market information. For example, fraudsters may set up an account name, profile, or handle designed to mimic a particular company or securities research firm. They may go so far as to create a webpage that uses the company’s logo, links to the company’s actual website, or references the name of an actual person who works for the company.
When you receive investment information through social media, verify the identity of the underlying source. Look for slight variations or typos in the sender’s account name, profile, email address, screen name, or handle, or other signs that the sender may be an imposter. Determine whether information appearing to be from a particular company or securities research firm is authentic. When contacting a company or attempting to access its website, be sure to use contact information or the website address provided by the company itself, such as in the company’s SEC filings. Carefully type the website’s address into the address bar of your web browser.
Some social media operators have systems that may help you to determine whether or not a sender is genuine. For example, Twitter verifies accounts for authenticity by posting a blue verified badge (a solid blue circle containing a white checkmark) on Twitter profiles. While a verified account does not guarantee that the source is genuine, be more skeptical of information from accounts that are not verified.
Think twice about investing if you spot any of these red flags of investment fraud:
- Limited history of posts. Fraudsters can set up new accounts specifically designed to carry out their scam while concealing their true identities. Be skeptical of information from social media accounts that lack a history of prior postings or sending messages.
- Pressure to buy or sell RIGHT NOW. Take the time to research the stock before you invest. Be skeptical of messages urging you to buy a hot stock before you “miss out” or to sell shares of a stock you own before the price goes down after negative news is announced. Be especially wary if the promoter claims the recommendation is based on “inside” or confidential information.
- Unsolicited investment information or offers. Fraudsters may look for victims on social media sites, chat rooms, and bulletin boards. Exercise extreme caution regarding information provided in new posts on your wall, tweets, direct messages, e-mails, or other communications that solicit an investment or provide information about a particular stock if you do not personally know the sender (even if the sender appears connected to someone you know).
- Unlicensed sellers. Federal and state securities laws require investment professionals and their firms who offer and sell investments to be licensed or registered. Many fraudulent investment schemes involve unlicensed individuals or unregistered firms. Check license and registration status by searching the SEC’s Investment Adviser Public Disclosure (IAPD) website or the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA)’s BrokerCheck website.
Investors who learn of investing opportunities from social media should always be on the lookout for fraud. If you are aware of possible securities fraud, including potential market manipulation, submit a tip or complaint to the SEC.
To report a problem or to ask a question, submit a complaint or question to the SEC or call the SEC’s toll-free investor assistance line at (800) 732-0330 (dial 1-202-551-6551 if calling from outside of the United States).
Investor Alert: Fraudulent Stock Promotions
Investor Alert: Investment Newsletters Used as Tools for Fraud
Investor Alert: Don’t Trade on Pump-And-Dump Stock Emails
Investor Alert: Social Media and Investing – Avoiding Fraud
Investor Alert: Social Media and Investing – Understanding Your Accounts
Visit Investor.gov, the SEC’s website for individual investors.
Follow OIEA on Twitter @SEC_Investor_Ed.
The Office of Investor Education and Advocacy has provided this information as a service to investors. It is neither a legal interpretation nor a statement of SEC policy. If you have questions concerning the meaning or application of a particular law or rule, please consult with an attorney who specializes in securities law.