Today, it's "TokyoMex." Tomorrow, who knows?
news that TokyoMex, a popular online stock picker whose real name is Yun Soo Oh Park, is being investigated by federal stock regulators has raised the inevitable question among Internet message posters: Who's next?
Stock message boards and online chat rooms -- the roadside diners on the information superhighway where little separates hype, opinion and real news -- have spawned their own star system. The right stock pick or two can earn any online poster the label of "stock guru" and sometimes a legion of dedicated fans. Indeed, TokyoMex partially blamed his high profile for the
Securities and Exchange Commission
So, when the SEC takes action against any well-known online personality, it reverberates throughout the Net, says Tod Pauly, an avid message board follower and a self-described cybersleuth. "Anybody that feels they are doing something wrong or are on the edge, once they see the SEC activity -- you're darn right they're worried," Pauly says.
And TokyoMex is far from being the only stock picker online. Other so-called gurus, such as "Whiz Kid," "Lion Master," "KingFine" and "Mr. Pink," have become part of the stock chat room phenomenon. Often housing vitriolic message board battles and stock-hyping controversies, the online message boards resemble the Wild West before
rode into Tombstone. Almost every message board includes threats by some message posters to turn others over to the SEC.
"Money has been lost not just by the retail investor who held on to his short-term picks too long, but the pros are nervous," writes one message poster called Osprey on a
thread called "Short Term Picks from the 'Whiz' Kid" earlier this week. "I would like to know how many pros have cried foul to the SEC? I bet there are a lot."
Good bet. The SEC sees a surge of emails to its online complaint department after an enforcement action in an Internet stock fraud case, says John Stark, head of Internet enforcement in the SEC's division of enforcement. (Stark says he could neither confirm nor deny the existence of any SEC investigation of TokyoMex.)
"You can't bring every case, so it's best to send out real messages with the cases you do bring," says Stark.
Last October, the commission undertook its first SWAT-team approach to a sweep of the Internet, which resulted in actions against 44 individuals. Earlier this year, the SEC continued to crack down on pump-and-dump schemes and illegal stock touting on the Internet in two separate busts. The SEC suspended trading in six bulletin board stocks, saying it had concerns over the accuracy of information about the companies being tossed around on the Internet. The SEC followed that up a few weeks later by bringing enforcement actions against 13 more individuals. Overall, the commission has brought 66 cases involving Internet stock fraud or manipulation since 1995.
For a few days after an announced SEC action, emailed complaints spike to as high as 800 to 900 messages a day, Stark says. That's not counting a surge in backslapping messages applauding the SEC for taking action, he adds. The SEC normally averages from 200 to 300 emails a day from consumers and investors.
More important, regulators also have noticed that when they bring an enforcement action, there is a reverberation effect. For example, when the SEC turned its attention on stock touters -- those who recommend or hype a stock without disclosing that they are being paid to do so -- other online touters who weren't caught in any criminal sweep offered more disclosure about their relationships with the companies that were paying them.
"I don't think it's anecdotal -- I think we are seeing tangible results out there," Stark says. "We're focused on the three S's -- sweeps, SWAT teams and suspensions."
For the moment, the more proactive regulatory environment is keeping posters guessing as to what the SEC knows and when it will take action.