The Securities and Exchange Commission has taken the drastic step of suspending trading in shares of 35 companies whose stocks have frequently been touted in mass spam campaigns.
SEC officials said on Feb. 8 that the firms involved -- none of which are household names -- have been the subject of repeated spam efforts meant to drive up trading of their securities and, subsequently, the value of the companies themselves.
The trading bans will last for 10 days, after which shares in the involved companies will be unlocked -- unless the SEC's ongoing investigation proves any of the firms were involved in the e-mail schemes.
While the ban might seem unfair to the businesses involved, especially if their names and securities were merely selected by scammers looking for penny stocks to inflate in so-called pump-and-dump operations, SEC officials said that in each business's case, there were sufficient questions raised regarding the "adequacy and accuracy" of information being advertised about the companies.
Criminals have increasingly begun using spam to drive up interest in cheap stocks over the last several years. Before sending out mass messages about a specific firm, the individuals buy stock in the companies in the expectation that, with their e-mails, they can convince other people to purchase shares. When prices of the shares involved rise, the schemers sell off their own holdings, thus the pump-and-dump moniker.
The spam messages, which often feature subject lines such as "Fast Money," have become one of the types of unwanted e-mail most frequently delivered to inboxes over the last year, alongside advertisements for prescription medications.
Whenever misleading information is being widely distributed about a firm whose securities are traded, the SEC takes such actions, an agency representative said.
"All we can say is that we suspend trading any time we think misinformation about specific securities is being reported," said Helene Glotzer, an SEC spokeswoman. "We're not making a statement that these companies themselves were behind the misstatements, but if the information is out there we feel it is important to let the investing public know; we'll continue our investigation, and if it is appropriate to take action against any of the companies, that is what we will do."
The suspensions are part of an SEC initiative known as Operation Spamalot, which was launched specifically to shield investors from spam e-mail "hyping" small company stocks.
SEC officials said that anyone who has received such e-mail will recognize the names of the companies who were suspended, as they are among the most frequently cited businesses in securities-related spam campaigns. The messages typically advertise some new product or impending deal that will increase the value of the companies and encourage investors to buy their low-priced securities, which are usually penny stocks.
For instance, among the companies whose shares were suspended is Apparel Manufacturing Associates, a Bloomfield, Conn.-based firm that markets itself as a management and development company focused on the fashion arena.