In their biggest strike ever against online investment scams, US regulators on Thursday shut down trading in 35 over-the-counter stocks that have been the subject of spam e-mails touting their investment potential.
Christopher Cox, the Securities and Exchange Commission chairman, estimated that more than 100m stock-touting e-mails are sent each week.
The majority are pump-and-dump schemes in which stock promoters buy penny stocks and try to resell them to gullible investors at higher prices. The most successful campaigns can significantly move stock prices.
The action “reflects the commissioners’ commitment to halting the worst abuses of investors that the internet age has to offer”, Mr Cox said at a press conference.
In Operation Spamalot, SEC enforcement staffers spent months combing through spam e-mails for the stocks that seemed to be the subject of the most persistent and misleading e-mail blasts. Several were the subject of multiple campaigns in a single year and total investor losses were in tens of millions of dollars, the SEC said.
“By interrupting the source of stock for spammers, we take away their ability to profit,” explained Mark Schonfeld, director of the SEC’s north-east regional office. The SEC was also trying to “heighten awareness by the public of the risk of investing in response to spam. Spam does not work without investors willing to part with their money.”
The 35 affected stocks all trade in the over-the-counter market where disclosure rules are more lax. They included companies such as Apparel Manufacturing Associates, Goldmark Industries and Healtheuniverse. The spam e-mails included lines such as “Huge news expected ... get in before the wire” and “Up 152% in 2 days!!!”
SEC officials said this sweep was part of an effort to tackle stock spam. Mr Cox said he expected more companies would face trading halts and Linda Chatman Thomsen, the SEC enforcement director, said the investigators would seek to bring actions against the promoters behind the e-mail spams.
“Our work here is not done. This is just a first step,” Ms Thomsen said.
The sweep comes just a day after the SEC froze $3m (£1.5m) in assets belonging to an overseas gang that broke into investors’ online brokerage accounts and used them to buy penny stocks that were the subjects of pump-and-dump schemes.