Updated from 1:50 p.m. EDT
Seeking to deter online scam artists and warn gullible investors, the
Securities and Exchange Commission
said Wednesday that it had filed 11 new civil cases involving fraud perpetrated on the Internet.
In the cases, which are aimed at so-called pump-and-dump schemes, the SEC named stock promoters and officials of obscure companies. It accused them of using Web sites and Internet bulletin boards to spread misleading information about companies with thinly traded stocks in order to push up the stock prices, then selling shares into the resulting price rise.
The agency filed the civil cases in federal district courts across the country and began four related administrative proceedings against a total of 33 individuals and companies. They involve stocks of more than 70 microcap companies, which are typically defined as having a market capitalization below $50 million. The SEC said the value of the stocks involved was falsely inflated by an aggregate of more $1.7 billion.
Previous SEC Internet sweeps took place in October 1998, February 1999 and May 1999.
Of the 180 cases filed so far involving online stock manipulation, the majority have ended in settlements, said Donald Hoerl, spokesman for the SEC. He was not aware of the exact number of cases still in litigation and said he could not recall a case that ended in a judgment adverse to the SEC.
As it has facilitated widespread fraud, the Internet has altered the nature of enforcement efforts, Hoerl said. For instance, the cases announced Wednesday involved promoters and company officials across the country and overseas. While SEC agents are based by region, their investigations sometimes led the agency to file cases in faraway courts.
"We find it more often than not that we have to go out of our district to pursue a matter," Hoerl said. The agency weighs "where defendants are, where witnesses are, where foreigners contacted the U.S. We sort of put all that on a scale."
Against many of the defendants, the agency seeks monetary penalties, including the surrender of ill-gotten gains. Payback is a trickier proposition.
"It often happens that the money is gone, and so we don't get the money back or the amount of money is such that it isn't worth setting up a receivership and going through the process," Hoerl said. As such, he said, the SEC has made no efforts to determine the victims.
This batch of defendants allegedly made profits as small as $23,000 and as large as $3.4 million.
While the Internet was a common thread, the industries involved could hardly be more disparate. The SEC accused various defendants of manipulating the share prices of an oncological information Web site, a furniture manufacturing company and the former makers of
, a self-cooling beverage can. The can used freon, a banned substance, and the company fraudulently touted its product as environmentally safe, the agency contended. Wallace Boyak, a lawyer for
Chill Tech Industries
, the can maker, could not immediately be reached.
Company officials and professional stock brokers were named in some lawsuits, but the defendants also included rank amateurs. In one case, the SEC named a college student who also moonlighted as a driver for a car service.
The agency hopes promotion will serve as both a deterrent to would-be scam artists and a signpost for investors. It released a
manual for avoiding online scams.
"In the end, these are the people who need to make the effort to protect themselves," Hoerl said, referring to individual investors.