Direct mail and e-mail campaigns have long been the staple of paid promotions of microcap stocks, but in recent months stock promoters appear to have had increasing success using a potentially more powerful outlet.
Paid stock promotions, masquerading as investment opinion articles and blogs, have been popping up on the company news pages of Yahoo! Finance, the stock research website Seeking Alpha and, some observers suspect, on the website of Forbes magazine.
Articles published in paid stock promotions often forecast massive upside for the shares of companies whose financials indicate only marginal businesses.
For Yahoo! Finance, the promotions had become such a problem that it sent a letter to content providers in March stating that it no longer wanted them to send "investment opinion" pieces.
"In recent months, there has been a proliferation of investment opinion (INO) releases on the site's Stock Quote Pages via feeds from our press release providers," the letter reads. "These INO releases neither reflect the opinions of, nor are vetted for accuracy and reliability by the editorial team. Moreover, these releases do not constitute legitimate news about the companies on whose Quote Pages they appear. The Yahoo! Finance team has determined that these releases do not constitute suitable content for our users. Therefore, all press release providers must cease the syndication of INO releases to Yahoo! Finance effective immediately. Failure to comply with this change in policy will be considered a violation of our Editorial & Ticker Policies."
A Yahoo! Finance spokesman declined to comment further.
Press release distribution outlets whose releases appear on Yahoo! Finance include Business Wire, PRNewswire, PrimeZone Media Network and Market Wire, Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Yahoo! Inc. says on its user help pages.
In May, Seeking Alpha confessed to readers that five articles it published in March and April that recommended investment in Goff Corp. were paid-for advocacy pieces. Seeking Alpha already had a standing policy of not accepting or publishing paid-for pieces.
Goff, based in Medellín, Colombia, purports to be a gold mining company. Its shares traded as high as 65 cents in April, amid a broader stock promotion campaign that included the Seeking Alpha articles. As of June 11, Goff shares traded at 1 cent, over the counter under the ticker GOFFE.
Goff is also one of several penny stock companies and stock-promotion newsletters that were named as defendants in a lawsuit filed in May, alleging violations of California's law against spam e-mail.
Hotstocked.com, which tracks paid stock promotions, has reported that at least a dozen e-mail campaigns had been undertaken by promoters in May, who were paid $67,500 by an entity called Winning Media and other parties to recommend Goff shares. The information is based on the legal disclaimers on the promotional e-mails. At least one of the promotions stated that Goff stock was poised to "bounce 50-100% from current levels."
The promotion of Goff had been under way since March, according to PromoBuyer, another site that tracks promotions. It posted a screenshot of a mailer sent by stock promotion newsletter Penny Stock Pillager. Its publisher, Capital Financial Media, had received and managed a production budget of $2.2 million for its promotion of Goff, according to the legal disclaimer in the mailer.
Aside from the efforts of stock promoters, Goff appeared to be trying to raise its own profile. It put out at least 26 different press releases from March 15 to May 6, announcing new developments in its claimed gold mining project in Colombia.
At the same time, Goff has disclosed little about its mining projects in its filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. As of the end of 2012, Goff was a development-stage company whose only asset was $5,653 in cash, according to its most recent quarterly filing with the SEC.
Efforts to reach Goff management for comment failed. The phone number listed on Goff's SEC filings no longer works and an e-mail sent to the company from its website bounced back as undeliverable.
Seeking Alpha said in its article acknowledging the paid-for articles that it wasn't aware of them until The Motley Fool market commentary website published a story about the Goff promotion on May 15.
Stock promotion is not illegal, in and of itself. Investor relations specialists often promote their clients' stocks to investors and the media. Promotion is said by many small-cap market observers to be a necessary task for microcap companies, as even those with legitimate business prospects often have trouble attracting attention from investors.
But promotions whose authors are not identified or who don't disclose their compensation, or that are not grounded in fact are often referred to as "pumps," and under SEC regulations, can be illegal. They are often designed to benefit seed shareholders who have purchased large holdings of cheap stock. The promotion can allow those seed shareholders to sell their shares to naive retail investors who rush to buy, based on the claims of the promotion. When the promotions end, the stocks often crash.
The SEC has attempted to crack down on pump-and-dump schemes over the past year by suspending trading in large numbers of dormant shell companies, which are often used as vehicles for pump-and-dumps. It suspended trading in 379 shell companies on a single day in May 2012. The commission suspended trading in another 61 shells on June 3, 2013.
On June 12, the SEC and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority issued a statement warning investors about pump-and-dump schemes.
"Pump-and-dump promoters frequently claim to have 'inside' information about an impending development," the advisory warned. "Others may say they use an 'infallible' system that uses a combination of economic and stock market data to pick stocks. These scams are the inbox equivalent of a boiler room sales operation, hounding investors with potentially false information about a company."
"Spam e-mail is the bait used to lure people into making bad investment decisions. No one should ever make an investment based on the advice of an unsolicited e-mail," said Cameron Funkhouser, executive vice president of FINRA's office of fraud detection and market intelligence.
Seeking Alpha managing editor George Moriarty said in an interview that his organization is growing and is doing its best to deal with issues like stock promotions.
The New York-based online platform for contributor-based investment research has reacted to the Goff incident by changing its editorial processes. In the past, with few exceptions, Seeking Alpha wouldn't accept stories about companies with market capitalizations of less than $100 million or share prices of less than $1. That policy was relaxed, however, when the economy tanked, and companies including Freddie Mac and Sirius XM Radio Inc. fell below a dollar.
In order for a company to receive coverage now, however, it must carry a share price of at least $1 and a market cap of at least $100 million.
"While we recognize that a 'one-size-fits-all' rule will inevitably impact our legitimate authors, our concerns over illegitimate stock promotions are such that we have to err on the side of caution," Moriarty said in a written statement.
He later said in an interview that the new policy is not set in stone.
"If there is a sufficient level of expertise and high-quality analysis and depth to a story and the stock is the focus of the story, we are going to consider making an exception," Moriarty said.
Dave Gentry, chief executive of investor relations firm RedChip Cos., said that Seeking Alpha is often used as a vehicle by stock promoters.
"Seeking Alpha is easily the biggest abuser, as far as allowing bloggers to promote stocks," he said. "Some of these guys are I.R. guys, quasi-I.R. guys or friends of the CEO, but they are being paid under the table to promote stocks."
Gentry added that his Maitland, Fla.-based firm often writes blogs on behalf of clients, but that it always discloses its role in the writing. That is "something you aren't seeing from these promoters," he said.
Moriarty said Seeking Alpha will also crack down on the practice of mentioning microcap stocks in articles that are largely about a megastock in the same industry: Devoting a few paragraphs to a small energy company in article that is largely about Exxon Mobil Corp., for example. This tactic is commonly used by promoters trying to lend credibility to small-cap stocks with no identities of their own.
Some observers of the small-cap market have said they suspect that paid promotions have been planted in Forbes' blog network.
Blogger Tedra DeSue penned a story for Forbes in February about Swingplane Ventures Inc., a copper mining concern based in Santiago, Chile. DeSue's story touched on the fact that Swingplane's shares had been volatile but that company representatives disavowed any knowledge of a promotion.
The story also mentioned that penny stock newsletter Awesome Penny Stocks had recommended Swingplane shares.
The blog failed to mention that Awesome Penny Stocks is, itself, a stock promoter that accepts compensation to recommend the stocks it covers. At the time, Awesome Penny was promoting Swingplane.
"I think the demand for the metal will pick up as the global economy recovers," DeSue's article said. "As it does, the steps that Swingplane is taking with its mining efforts in Chile will make it well-positioned as a company and a stock."
The Fraud Research Institute, a Washington-based investment group that publishes research on alleged stock fraud, claims to have evidence that DeSue was paid to recommend Swingplane as part of its promotion.
A representative of the group provided The Daily Deal with screenshots from Elance Inc., a website where businesses post projects for writers and other freelance workers. One of the screenshots shows a project posted Feb. 23, seeking "a research article to get up on Forbes." The job description specifically stated that the winning bidder for the project had to be a Forbes contributor.
Another screenshot showed that the projected was granted to a freelance writer that bids on Elance projects under the user name Twilly D. Twilly D.'s profile page on Elance features a portfolio of articles written under the bylines of Tedra DeSue and Mia DeSue.
The Elance screenshots show that DeSue agreed to do the article for $250.
The representative of The Fraud Research Institute told The Daily Deal that it turned over all its research to Forbes regarding the Swingplane story and DeSue.
"We are investigating the concerns you raised," Forbes spokeswoman Mia Carbonell said in an e-mail to The Daily Deal. "If true, they would violate our policies, and Forbes will take appropriate action."
DeSue's Swingplane story has been taken down from Forbes' website.
Carbonell said DeSue's blogging account on Forbes was turned off in February and that her posts were taken down because "she strayed from the area she had agreed to cover into an area that Forbes considers speculative."
Carbonell said she that she couldn't confirm that DeSue had any conflict of interest. Carbonell said, however, that all Forbes contributors are required to disclose conflicts of interest, including financial interests in products, firms or commercial ventures related to their posts' subjects.
"Forbes does not allow contributors to accept payment in exchange for coverage on Forbes.com," she said.
DeSue did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
It should be noted that DeSue has written for other publications, including TheStreet.com. TheStreet and The Daily Deal are both published by TheStreet Inc.
William Inman, editor-in-chief at TheStreet, said his editors were not aware of the controversy over DeSue's Forbes story. He said that TheStreet has a very strict policy forbidding acceptance of payments or gifts from sources and doesn't even allow its reporters or contributors to trade stocks.
DeSue wrote 14 articles for TheStreet.com in April, but no longer writes for the website. All of her articles were on topics that editors assigned to her, Inman said. TheStreet stopped using DeSue as a contributor after she stopped responding to her editors' e-mails, he said. The decision to no longer use DeSue as a contributor was not related to the Forbes situation.
Swingplane's promoter Awesome Penny Stocks was the subject of an SEC investigation in 2012, according to people who were interviewed by investigators.
Neither Awesome Penny Stocks nor the SEC responded to a request for comment regarding the probe.
Awesome Penny was involved in the 2012 promotion of vitamin producer Sunpeaks Ventures Inc., which has since changed its name to Pharmagen Inc.
Jacob Wolinsky, who runs investment information website ValueWalk, said he was offered $1,000 to write an article praising Sunpeaks. Wolinsky said he was offered an additional $500 if he agreed not to disclose the payment, but refused the bonus. The article was published on Seeking Alpha in April 2012.
"I thought the guy who I talked to was just a shareholder who wanted some positive P.R.," Wolinsky said in an interview. "I had no idea that there was a promotion going on. It was the first and the last time I did a sponsored story."
Michael Goode, who has published almost 50 articles on Seeking Alpha, called Wolinsky's article "yet another paid stock promotion on Seeking Alpha," in a comment on the site. "SA has gone completely to the dogs over the last few years. It is a shame."
Goode, a frequent investor and short seller in microcap stocks, said part of the problem with Seeking Alpha is there are so many contributors doing so many stories. "They let a lot of stuff go, and there is only so much they can do," he said. "They are a lot better than they used to be."
Wolinsky said that since the Sunpeaks article, he has been approached numerous other times to write stories about microcap stocks and offered money for his services. "I really regret that I did the first story so I won't do it again, but there seem to be a lot of people out there who are willing to pay good money for sponsored stories," Wolinsky said.
He said that the people he corresponded with didn't use their real names and that, in at least one case, one used an e-mail service out of Canada that offers anonymity to its users.
"Ten or 15 years ago, bulk mailers were the way that stock promotions were done. About seven years ago it became mass e-mails," said Crocker Coulson, president of CCG Investor Relations. "Now the venue of choice is publications or sites like Seeking Alpha. The thing about it is that the people doing it are misrepresenting themselves and the investors looking at these stories may not be sophisticated enough to understand what is going on."
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