Tag Archives: investment fraud

The Versatile Microcap

A microcap is a publicly traded company whose stock might be worth only pennies, which causes its price to be volatile and thus easier for fraudsters to manipulate. Although CFEs like our Central Virginia Chapter members might not regularly come across microcap stock manipulation, it’s important for all of us to be aware of the methods and motivations behind this significant criminal activity. In this scheme, promoters and insiders, after cheaply purchasing a stock, typically pump up its value through embellished or entirely false news. However, as reported recently in the trade press, other fraudsters have successfully employed much more creative strategies in exploiting microcaps. Several articles and books have told of the involvement of organized crime, especially throughout the ’00s and ’10s, in this highly profitable illegal business.

Basic pump and dump schemes, also known as hype and dump manipulation, involve the touting of a company’s stock (typically micro-cap companies) through false or misleading statements to the marketplace. After pumping up the stock, scam artists make huge profits by selling or dumping their cheap stock onto the market. Today, pump and dump schemes have been updated and most frequently occur over the Internet, where it is common to see e-mail and other messages posted that urge consumers to buy a stock quickly or to sell their stocks before the price goes down. In some cases, a spam-call telemarketer contacts potential investors using the same sort of pitch. Often the promoters claim to have inside information about an impending development, or to have employed 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 fraudulent promoters dump their shares and stop hyping the stock, the price typically falls and investors lose their money.

In another recent but simple form of the micro-cap scheme, a caller leaves a message on a potential victim’s voice mail under the guise of someone who dialed the wrong number. Sounding as if they didn’t realize they had misdialed, the message contains a hot investment tip for a friend. However, the caller is actually a spammer, someone being paid to tout this stock on hundreds of cell phones. Those behind the scheme generally own some of the stock and hope to profit by pumping up the share price and selling off their investments.

Pump-and-dump schemes can be as relatively simple as the one above, or such as an individual or small group releasing false information in a chat room or insiders publishing inflated company information. Sometimes the business owners themselves are complicit, especially with shell corporations that have little actual operations or value. Occasionally, scammers dupe business owners into participating in schemes through promises of investment support and/or related marketing help. Or fraudsters, unbeknownst to the victim company, hijack their target company’s stock and falsely hype it, which often causes irreparable damage to the owners’ and to their business’ reputations. CFEs whose clients include small or new venture businesses should be especially cautious of unsolicited offers made to their clients to receive loans or to raise capital through microcap stock offerings. Criminals commonly target businesses in the pharmaceutical, energy or technology sectors, attempting to use their names and initial offerings to manipulate stock for profit.

More complex microcap stock manipulation schemes involving organized crime typically employ a number of persons who are instructed to buy in at various points that coincide with a series of false press releases and concurrent investor forum-controlled chat and spam emails. This orchestrated activity provides the illusion of stock movement resulting from large investor interest thus drawing in the required funds of outsider victims. The actual manipulation often resembles a series of smaller pumps and dumps instead of one large event. So the fraudsters can use the same stock over and over with less chance of detection by regulatory authorities. More refined players also employ foreign or off-shore brokerage accounts as a further veil over their illegal activities.

When the organized manipulation plan succeeds, the ringleaders will permit the accomplices to sell and obtain their related profit depending on their hierarchy in the organization. However, the end process is often far from perfect. Occasionally, accomplices don’t follow instructions, at their significant personal risk, and sell too early or late. Even if the manipulation isn’t always successful, organized crime members who have invested in the process expect and demand a certain profit, which places additional pressure on participants who might find they have debt on their hands because of their failures.

Occasionally, outsiders also take large positions either profiting from or destroying the momentum of the criminal group. In the 1990s, when trades were completed through actual brokers, criminals could use threats or actual violence to control such unwanted participants. However, technological trading platforms have made this more difficult.

A less common, yet also profitable, technique is to put downward pressure on a stock (or cause the price to decrease) after buying the equity on loan through a contract, or option, with the hopes of buying the stock or settling the contract once the stock has dropped in price. Fraudsters can initiate this manipulation technique, commonly known as ‘short and distort,’ by promoting rumors such as a bad quarter or failed new drug test.

The ability to manipulate microcap stocks with relative ease also makes the activity an ideal tool to hide payments between parties and launder money. Instead of paying cash or wiring funds to settle a drug debt, one can simply provide a tip relating to a microcap stock that’s about to be manipulated. The party who’s owed the debt then only has to buy the stock cheaply and await for the pump to make the sale and generate the profit.

Perpetrators also have used the same process to offer bribes to public servants. Troublesome envelopes or bags of cash aren’t required. The profit appears as a simple lucky or astute stock pick, and culprits can even report them as capital gains thus removing the risk of highly feared and powerful tax investigators becoming involved in a possible money-laundering investigation. Police and securities regulatory authorities have observed and reported such suspicious activity. However, it’s often difficult to link those who profit from the manipulation with the culpable manipulators. Also, considering that organized crime elements employ microcap manipulation for debt payments and as profitable crimes, it’s again challenging for authorities to identify the exact goals of their participation without some inside knowledge. Proving all the elements of the crime is nearly impossible without wire taps or a co-conspirator witness.

With all this said, it’s ironic, yet not surprising, that more than one organized-crime figure has said they don’t invest their own criminal earnings in microcap stocks because they deem such markets to be too risky and plagued by manipulators.

So, in summary, if you, as a CFE, come across information relating to a microcap investment involving a case you’re working, you might want to take a closer look.

With regard to preventing investment fraud schemes in general … caution your clients:

• to not invest in anything based upon appearances. Just because an individual or company has a flashy website doesn’t mean it is legitimate. Websites can be created in a matter of hours and taken down even faster. After a short period of taking money, a site can vanish without a trace.
• to not invest in anything about which they are not absolutely sure. Do homework on an investment to ensure it is legitimate.
• to thoroughly investigate the offering individual or company to ensure legitimacy.
• to check out other websites regarding this person or company.
• to be cautious when responding to special investment offers (especially through unsolicited e-mail) by fast talking telemarketers. Know with whom you are dealing!
• to inquire about all the terms and conditions involved with the investors and the investment.
• Rule of thumb: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

In Plain Sight

By Rumbi Petrozzello, CPA/CFF, CFE
2017 Vice-President – Central Virginia Chapter ACFE

Recently, I was listening to one my favorite podcasts, Radiolab, and they were discussing a series on Audible called “Ponzi Supernova”. Reporter Steve Fishman hounded infamous Ponzi schemer, Bernie Madoff, for several years. One day, Bernie called Steve, collect, and thus began the conversations between Madoff and Fishman that makes this telling of the Madoff Ponzi scheme like none other.

The tale is certainly compelling (how can a story of the largest known Ponzi scheme not be fascinating) and hearing Bernie Madoff talking about what he did and hearing what he says motivated him makes this series something I listened to from beginning to end, almost without taking a break. Through it all, as had happened just about every time I read or heard about Madoff, I was amazed that he was able to perpetrate his fraud for as long as he did, which, depending on who you believe, started somewhere between the early 1960s and 1992 (even Madoff gives different dates for when he started). This is no surprise. All too often, when fraudsters are caught, they try to minimize the extent of their wrongdoing. If they know that you’ve found $1,000, they’ll tell you that $1,000 was all they took. If you go on to find more, then the story will change a little to include what you’ve found. It’s very rare that a fraudster will confess to the full extent of her crime at the first go around (or even at the second or third).

As I listened to the series, something became very apparent. Often when people discuss the Madoff Ponzi scheme, one tends to get the feeling that, for decades, he took money from new investors to pay off old investors and carried on his multi-billion-dollar scheme without a single soul blowing the whistle on him. But that’s not the case. In a 477-page report from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission Office of Investigations (OIG) entitled “Investigation of Failure of the SEC to Uncover Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi Scheme – Public Version”, between June 1992 and December 2008, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) received “six substantive complaints” regarding Madoff’s company and some of these complaints were submitted more than once.

One complaint mentioned in the report was received three times, with versions submitted in 2000, 2001 and 2005; the 2005 version was even entitled “The World’s Largest Hedge Fund is a Fraud”. This complaint series was submitted by Madoff’s most well-known nemesis, the whistleblower, Harry Markopolos. But, there were at least five other individuals who shared their concerns and suspicions about Madoff with the SEC. Three of these specifically used the words “Ponzi scheme”, including the first complaint, in 1992. Based on these complaints, the SEC conducted two investigations and three examinations and, even though the complaints explicitly stated that they suspected that Madoff Investments was a Ponzi scheme, none of the investigations or examinations concluded that Madoff was operating a Ponzi scheme. To add to this, the SEC was aware of two articles that questioned Madoff’s returns. Over the years, several investment companies performed their own due diligence and decided that Madoff’s company did not make sense and they believed that investing with Madoff would be a violation of their fiduciary duty to their clients. Despite all of this, none of these investigations or exams contained a finding of fraud.

Whether you’re a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) or a CPA, Certified in Financial Forensics (CFF), the work that you do is governed by a set of professional standards that help establish a performance baseline. This begins with competence. This means that those taking on an assignment should be able to complete the assignment successfully. This does not necessarily mean that whoever is leading the job needs to know how to do everything. It does mean that they should ensure that there is the right skill set working on the job, even if it means the use of referrals or consultation. Too many times, while reading the OIG report, the reader confronts the mention of a lack of experience. Listening to Ponzi Supernova, I learnt that at least one examiner was only three weeks out of school. The OIG report stated that, for one examination, because the person leading the investigation had no knowledge of how to investigate a suspected Ponzi scheme, they decided to just not investigate that claim; they decided instead to investigate what they knew, and that was front running (though even that investigation was carried out poorly).

Another ACFE professional standard is that of due professional care. Due professional care “requires diligence, critical analysis and professional skepticism”. It also means that any conclusion that a CFE reaches, must be supported by evidence that is relevant, sufficient and competent. Several times during the various investigations and examinations, SEC staff would ask Madoff or his employees questions and then accept any answers they were given without seeking any third-party confirmation. Sometimes, even when third-party confirmation was sought, the questions asked of those third parties were not the correct ones. Madoff himself tells the story of how, in 2006, Madoff testified that he settled trades for his advisory clients through his personal Depository Trust Company (DTC) account and he even gave the SEC his DTC account information. At this point Madoff was sure that, once the SEC checked this out, his fraud would be discovered. Instead, the SEC merely asked the DTC if Madoff had an account, and nothing more. Had they asked about account activity, they would have then discovered that Madoff’s account, even though it existed, did not trade anywhere near the volume purported by his statements. This brings up other aspects of due professional care; adequate planning and supervision. With proper supervision, the less experienced can be trained not just to ask questions, but to ask, and get adequate answers to, the correct questions. The person reviewing their work would be able to ask them, “did the answer that you got from the DTC answer the question that we are asking? Can we now confirm not that Madoff has an account with the DTC but, instead, that he is trading billions of dollars through these accounts?”

Time and time again, in the OIG report, the SEC stated that they did not have experienced and adequate staff for their examinations and investigations of Madoff. This was an excuse that was used to explain why, for instance, they did not send out requests for third-party confirmations, even after drafting them. In one case, staff stated that they did not send out a request to the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD) because it would have been too time-consuming to review the data received. Adequate planning would have made sure that there was sufficient, qualified staffing to review the data. Adequate supervision would have ensured that this excuse for not sending out the request was squashed. However, it is not the case that no third-party confirmation requests were sent out. Some were and some of those sent out received responses. Responses were received from the NASD and other financial institutions These entities all claimed that there was no activity with Madoff on the dates that the examiners were asking about. Even with that information, there was no follow-up on the part of the examiners. At every turn, there seemed to be a lot of trust and just about no verification. This is even more surprising when you hear that the examiners would write notes about how Madoff was obviously lying and how many people had reported to the SEC that Madoff was running a dishonest business. Even with so much distrust, and so many whistleblowers, it turned out that those sent to shine a light on Madoff’s operations all seemed to be looking in all the wrong places.

Part of planning an investigation is determining what is being investigated and how the investigation is going to be executed. A very important part of the process is determining, beforehand, what will be done with negative results. When third-party responses were received and they all stated Madoff had not done business with them as claimed, the responses appear to have been filed and no further action taken. When responses were not received, the SEC did not follow up to find out why nothing had been returned. They likely would have found that the institution had not responded to the inquiry because there was nothing to respond about. There does not appear to have been a defined protocol on what to do when the answer to the question, “did this happen” was “No.”

I urge you to, at the very least, read the executive summary of the OIG report. For me at least, what Madoff could get away with, time and time again, with each subsequent SEC examination or investigation, is jaw-dropping. The fact that 1) several whistleblowers shared their concerns and even accompanied them with a great deal of detail and 2) that articles were written and yet, 3) those with access to the information that could prove, with very little effort, that Madoff was not doing what he claimed to be doing, found nothing of concern is something I struggle to comprehend. This whole sad history does underline the importance of referring to, and abiding by, our professional standards, to minimize the risk of missing a fraud like this one. Most importantly, it reduces the risk that someone might get an aneurism trying to wrap their mind around how, even when so many others could see that something was amiss, the watchdog missed it all!