Social media investing fraud

While social media can provide many benefits for investors, it also presents opportunities for fraudsters. Social media, and the Internet generally, offer a number of attributes criminals may find attractive. Social media lets fraudsters contact many different people at a relatively low cost. It is also easy to create a site, account, email, direct message, or webpage that looks and feels legitimate – and that feeling of legitimacy gives criminals a better chance to convince you to send them your money. Finally, it can be difficult to track down the true account holders that use social media. That potential for anonymity can make it harder for fraudsters to be held accountable. As a result, investors need to use caution when using social media when considering an investment.

What You Can Do to Avoid Investment Fraud

  • Ask questions. Fraudsters are counting on you not to investigate before you invest. Fend them off by doing your own digging. It’s not enough to ask for more information or for references – fraudsters have no incentive to set you straight. Take the time to do your own independent research.
  • Research before you invest. Unsolicited emails, message board postings, and company news releases should never be used as the sole basis for your investment decisions. Understand a company’s business and its products or services before investing. Look for the company’s  financial statements on the SEC’s website, or contact your  state securities regulator .
  • Know the salesperson. Spend some time checking out the person touting the investment before you invest – even if you already know the person socially. Always find out whether the securities salespeople who contact you are licensed to sell securities in your state and whether they or their firms have had run-ins with regulators or other investors. You can check out the disciplinary history of  brokers and  advisers  for free using the SEC’s and FINRA’s online databases. Your  state securities regulator  may have additional information.
  • Be wary of unsolicited offers. Be especially careful if you receive an unsolicited pitch to invest in a company, or see it praised online, but can’t find current financial information about it from independent sources. It could be a “pump and dump” scheme. Be wary if someone recommends foreign or “off-shore” investments. If something goes wrong, it’s harder to find out what happened and to locate money sent abroad.

Red flags for fraud and common persuasion tactics

How do successful, financially intelligent people fall prey to investment fraud? Researchers have found that investment fraudsters hit their targets with an array of persuasion techniques that are tailored to the victim’s psychological profile

  • If it sounds too good to be true, it is. Watch for “phantom riches.” Compare promised yields with current returns on well-known stock indexes. Any investment opportunity that claims you’ll receive substantially more could be highly risky -- and that means you might lose money.
  • “Guaranteed returns” aren’t. Every investment carries some degree of risk, which is reflected in the rate of return you can expect to receive. If your money is perfectly safe, you’ll most likely get a low return. High returns entail high risks, possibly including a total loss on the investment. Most fraudsters spend a lot of time trying to convince investors that extremely high returns are “guaranteed” or “can’t miss.” They try to plant an image in your head of what your life will be like when you are rich. Don’t believe it.
  • Beware the “halo” effect. Investors can be blinded by a “halo” effect when a con artist comes across as likeable or trustworthy. Credibility can be faked. Check out actual qualifications.
  • “Everyone is buying it.” Watch out for pitches that stress how “everyone is investing in this, so you should, too.” Think about whether you are interested in the product. If a sales presentation focuses on how many others have bought the product, this could be a red flag.
  • Pressure to send money RIGHT NOW. Scam artists often tell their victims that this is a once-in-a-lifetime offer and it will be gone tomorrow. But resist the pressure to invest quickly and take the time you need to investigate before sending money. If it is that good an opportunity, it will wait.
  • Reciprocity. Fraudsters often try to lure investors through free investment seminars, figuring if they do a small favor for you, such as supplying a free lunch, you will do a big favor for them and invest in their product. There is never a reason to make a quick decision on an investment. If you attend a free lunch, take the material home and research both the investment and the individual selling it before you invest. Always make sure the product is right for you and that you understand what you are buying and all the associated fees.

Look out for “Affinity Fraud” Never make an investment based solely on the recommendation of a member of an organization or group to which you belong, especially if the pitch is made online. An investment pitch made through an online group of which you are a member, or on a chat room or bulletin board catered to an interest you have, may be an affinity fraud. Affinity fraud refers to investment scams that prey upon members of identifiable groups, such as religious or ethnic communities, the elderly, or professional groups. Even if you do know the person making the investment offer, be sure to check out everything – no matter how trustworthy the person seems who brings the investment opportunity to your attention. Be aware that the person telling you about the investment may have been fooled into believing that the investment is legitimate when it is not.

Be Thoughtful About Privacy and Security Settings

Investors who use social media websites as a tool for investing should be mindful of the various features on these websites in order to protect their privacy and help avoid fraud. Understand that unless you guard personal information, it may be available not only for your friends, but for anyone with access to the Internet – including fraudsters.

Ask Questions and Check Out Everything

Be skeptical and research every aspect of an offer before making a decision. Investigate the investment thoroughly and check the truth of every statement you are told about the investment. Never rely on a testimonial or take a promoter’s word at face value. You can check out many investments using the SEC’s EDGAR filing system or your state’s securities regulator. You can check out registered brokers at FINRA’s  BrokerCheck website and registered investment advisers at the SEC’s  Investment Adviser Public Disclosure website

A Few Common Investment Scams Using Social Media and the Internet

While fraudsters are constantly changing the way they approach victims on the Internet, there are a number of common scams of which you should be aware. 

Here are a few examples of the types of schemes you should be on the lookout for when using social media:

  1. “Pump-and-Dumps” and Market Manipulations
    “Pump-and-dump” schemes involve the touting of a company’s stock (typically small, so-called “microcap” companies) through false and misleading statements to the marketplace. These false claims could be made on social media such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as on bulletin boards and chat rooms. Pump-and-dump schemes often occur on the Internet where it is common to see messages posted that urge readers to buy a stock quickly or to sell before the price goes down, or a telemarketer will call using the same sort of pitch. Often the promoters will claim to have “inside” information about an impending development or to use an “infallible” combination of economic and stock market data to pick stocks. In reality, they may be company insiders or paid promoters who stand to gain by selling their shares after the stock price is “pumped” up by the buying frenzy they create. Once these fraudsters “dump” their shares and stop hyping the stock, the price typically falls, and investors lose their money.

  2. Fraud Using “Research Opinions,” Online Investment Newsletters, and Spam Blasts
    While legitimate online newsletters may contain useful information about investing, others are merely tools for fraud. Some companies pay online newsletters to “tout” or recommend their stocks. Touting isn’t illegal as long as the newsletters disclose who paid them, how much they’re getting paid, and the form of the payment, usually cash or stock. But fraudsters often lie about the payments they receive and their track records in recommending stocks. Fraudulent promoters may claim to offer independent, unbiased recommendations in newsletters when they stand to profit from convincing others to buy or sell certain stocks – often, but not always, penny stocks. The fact that these so-called “newsletters” may be advertised on legitimate websites, including on the online financial pages of news organizations, does not mean that they are not fraudulent. 

  3. High Yield Investment Programs
    The Internet is awash in so-called “high-yield investment programs” or “HYIPs.” These are unregistered investments typically run by unlicensed individuals – and they are often frauds. The hallmark of an HYIP scam is the promise of incredible returns at little or no risk to the investor. A HYIP website might promise annual (or even monthly, weekly, or daily!) returns of 30 or 40 percent – or more. Some of these scams may use the term “prime bank” program. If you are approached online to invest in one of these, you should exercise extreme caution - they are likely frauds.

  4. Internet-Based Offerings
    Offering frauds come in many different forms. Generally speaking, an offering fraud involves a security of some sort that is offered to the public, where the terms of the offer are materially misrepresented. The offerings, which can be made online, may make misrepresentations about the likelihood of a return. 

Where can I go for help?

Investors who learn of investing opportunities from social media should always be on the lookout for fraud. If you have a question or concern about an investment, or you think you have encountered fraud, please contact the SEC, FINRA, or your state securities regulator to report the fraud and to get assistance.

U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission
Office of Investor Education and Advocacy
100 F Street, NE
Washington, DC 20549-0213
Telephone: (800) 732-0330
Fax: (202) 772-9295

Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA)
FINRA Complaints and Tips
9509 Key West Avenue
Rockville, MD 20850
Telephone: (301) 590-6500
Fax: (866) 397-3290

North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA)
750 First Street, NE
Suite 1140
Washington, DC 20002
Telephone: (202) 737-0900
Fax: (202) 783-3571