SEC Takes Action: False & Misleading Conduct Related to COVID-19

The SEC is taking action against numerous companies for their false and misleading conduct related to COVID-19

Since February 2020, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has temporarily suspended trading in over 30 stocks and filed several enforcement actions against individuals and microcap securities issuers based on fraudulent COVID-19-related claims.

The enforcement actions have a common theme – fraudulent misrepresentations made in press releases and online forums about the company providing COVID-19 tests or protective equipment, in an attempt to unlawfully drive up the share price of the company’s stock.

These emergency enforcement actions seek to protect the public by freezing defendants’ assets, getting permanent injunctions to bar the wrongdoers from further violations of the securities laws, officer-and-director bars against individual participants, disgorgement of ill-gotten gains, civil money penalties, and penny stock trading bars.

SEC v. Nelson Gomes et al. (filed 06/09/20)

The SEC took emergency action against this group of individuals and offshore entities based on allegations of a fraudulent scheme to profit from the COVID-19 pandemic. The allegations include that the defendants generated more than $25 million from illegal microcap stock sales, using promotional campaigns that falsely asserted that the multiple companies involved could produce medical grade facemasks and automated retail kiosks. Company insiders dumped large amounts of the shares, hiding the activity so investors were unaware of the “pump and dump” scheme. The SEC warns that investors should generally be on the alert for fraud involving microcap stocks, as they may be more prone to manipulative schemes by fraudsters.

SEC v. Jason C. Nielsen (filed 06/09/20)

The SEC brought charges against a penny stock trader based in Santa Cruz, California, who allegedly engaged in a “pump-and-dump” scheme. The SEC claims that the trader made numerous false statements in an online investment forum about a biotechnology company, Arrayit Corporation, to artificially drive demand up, so the trader could sell his shares for a profit.  The trader falsely asserted that the company had developed an approved COVID-19 blood test. The SEC also claims that the trader scheduled and subsequently cancelled several large purchases of the company’s stock as another way to create an apparent high demand for the stock. Investors should be attentive to signs of stock manipulation, especially those regarding products or services related to COVID-19.

SEC v. Applied BioSciences Corp. (filed 05/14/20)

The SEC filed a complaint against microcap company Applied BioSciences Corp. based on the company’s misleading press releases in March 2020, intended to exploit the coronavirus pandemic for profit. The company’s press releases claimed to offer shipment of at-home COVID-19 tests that could be used by individuals and institutions. The SEC complaint alleges that the tests were not approved for at-home use, had not been approved by the FDA, and, as of the press release, the company had not yet shipped any of the tests. The false and misleading press releases caused the company’s stock price and trading volume to soar.

SEC v. Turbo Global Partners, Inc. and Robert W. Singerman (filed 05/14/20)

The SEC filed a complaint against Turbo Global Partners, Inc. and its CEO and chairman, Robert W. Singerman, based on a “pump and dump” scheme to artificially increase stock value by issuing two false press releases in late March and early April 2020. The press releases announced the company’s involvement in a “multi-national-public-private-partnership” to distribute and sell non-contact fever-detecting equipment with facial recognition technology, which would soon be available in each state. The SEC alleges the releases were materially false and misleading in numerous ways, including that no such partnership existed, the equipment did not have such technology, and that the company’s CEO knew his statements to be false. The false and misleading press releases caused the company’s stock price and trading volume to all-time highs.

SEC v. Praxsyn Corporation and Frank J. Brady (filed 04/28/20)

In late April, the SEC charged Praxsyn Corporation and its CEO, Frank J. Brady, with issuing false statements regarding the company’s ability to source and distribute N95 masks. In a press release, Praxsyn claimed that it had established a supply chain that would allow the company to sell millions of masks.  Subsequently, Praxsyn announced that it already had a large stock of masks. The SEC’s complaint alleges that Praxsyn neither had any masks on hand nor a single contract with a manufacturer or supplier. After being pressed by regulatory inquires, the company admitted in a third press release that it never had N95 masks on hand, and its artificially inflated share price and trading volume dropped to about what it had been prior to the false press releases.

The SEC Temporarily Suspended Trading in the Securities of the Following Companies for Violations Related to COVID-19

Using its authority under Section 12(k) of the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934, the SEC temporarily suspended trading due to concerns about the accuracy and adequacy of publicly available information and public statements made by these issuers:

  • Blackhawk Growth Corp. (6/22/2020)
  • Micron Waste Technologies Inc. (5/26/2020)
  • WOD Retail Solutions Inc. (5/20/2020)
  • Custom Protection Services, Inc. (5/5/2020)
  • CNS Pharmaceuticals Inc. (5/1/2020)
  • Moleculin Biotech, Inc. (5/1//2020)
  • WPD Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (5/1/2020)
  • Nano Magic Inc. (4/30/2020)
  • Kleangas Energy Technologies, Inc. (4/27/2020)
  • Decision Diagnostics Corp. (4/23/2020)
  • Predictive Technology Group, Inc. (4/21/2020)
  • SpectrumDNA, Inc. (4/21/2020)
  • SCWorx Corp. (4/21/2020)
  • PreCheck Health Services, Inc. (4/16/2020)
  • Bravatek Solutions, Inc. (4/15/2020)
  • BioXyTran, Inc. (4/15/2020)
  • Signpath Pharma, Inc. (4/15/2020)
  • Applied BioSciences Corp. (4/13/2020)
  • Arrayit Corporation (4/13/2020)
  • Solei Systems, Inc. (4/10/2020)
  • Roadman Investments Corp. (4/10/2020)
  • Parallax Health Sciences, Inc. (4/10/2020)
  • Turbo Global Partners, Inc. (4/9/2020)
  • BioELife Corp. f/k/a U.S. Lithium Corp. (4/9/2020)
  • Key Capital Corporation (4/7/2020)
  • Prestige Capital Corp. (4/7/2020)
  • Wellness Matrix Group, Inc. (4/7/2020)
  • Sandy Steele Unlimited, Inc. (4/3/2020)
  • No Borders, Inc. (4/3/2020)
  • Praxsyn Corporation (3/25/2020)
  • Zoom Technologies, Inc. (3/25/2020)
  • Eastgate Biotech (2/24/2020)
  • Aethlon Medical, Inc. (2/27/2020)

Investing in Stock that was Previously Suspended by the SEC May Be Additionally Risky

The SEC suspends trading in a stock when it believes that suspension is required to protect investors and the public interest. Section 12(k) of the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934 allows the SEC suspend trading in any security (other than an exempted security) for a period not exceeding 10 business days. Even if trading resumes after the 10-day period, the SEC may continue to investigate a company to determine if it has defrauded investors. Importantly, the SEC is not required to alert the public of a pending investigation until an enforcement action is publicly filed, like the ones described above.

Stocks that trade on a national exchange automatically resume trading after the suspension period ends. However, securities traded on the OTC Markets, which typically are where many “penny stocks” or microcap stocks trade, do not automatically resume trading after the suspension period ends. Before trading can resume, certain requirements under SEC and FINRA rules must be fulfilled. This means that there is a risk the OTC stock never resumes trading. With no market to trade in, the stock may be worthless.

What Should You Do If You Discover a Trading Suspension?

The SEC recommends contacting the broker-dealer who sold you the stock, or who quoted the stock before the suspension. Ask if they intend to resume publishing a quote in the company’s stock. If trading resumes, expect a decline in the price of the security as investors may rush to sell of their holdings.

If a FINRA-registered broker-dealer recommended and sold you the stock, depending on the circumstances of the sale, your investment objectives and risk tolerance, and other factors, you may have a claim against the broker-dealer for your investment losses.

Investors should generally proceed carefully if trading in low-value microcap or “penny stocks.” Be wary of online forums or press releases that purport to announce a company’s COVID-19-related products or services.

Darlene Pasieczny, AttorneyDarlene Pasieczny is a fiduciary and securities litigator at Samuels Yoelin Kantor LLP.  She represents clients in Oregon and Washington with matters regarding trust and estate disputes, financial elder abuse cases, and securities litigation. She also represents investors nationwide in FINRA arbitration to recover losses caused unlawful broker conduct.  Her article, New Tools Help Financial Professionals Prevent Elder Abuse, was featured in the January 2019, Oregon State Bar Elder Law Newsletter.

Investor Alert – NASAA and SEC Warn about Cryptocurrency Related Investments

This past Thursday, the same day I posted about a recent FINRA Investor Alert regarding cryptocurrency, there was a new press release from the North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA) with further guidance on the same topic. NASAA’s analysis and warning amounts to this:  Initial Coin Offerings (“ICOs”), and all other investment products related to cryptocurrency or the blockchain, pose a threat to investors.

“A NASAA survey of state and provincial securities regulators shows 94 percent believe there is a ‘high risk of fraud’ involving cryptocurrencies. Regulators also were unanimous in their view that more regulation is needed for cryptocurrency to provide greater investor protection.”

The same day, the SEC made a public statement from Chairman Jay Clayton and Commissioners Kara M. Stein and Michael S. Piwowar, in wholehearted agreement with NASAA:  “The NASAA release also reminds investors that when they are offered and sold securities they are entitled to the benefits of state and federal securities laws, and that sellers and other market participants must follow these laws. Unfortunately, it is clear that many promoters of ICOs and others participating in the cryptocurrency – related investment markets are not following these laws. The SEC and state securities regulators are pursuing violations, but we again caution you that, if you lose money, there is a substantial risk that our efforts will not result in a recovery of your investment.”

“High risk of fraud”?  That’s a polite understatement. The conditions in this cryptocurrency market are the perfect conditions for bad actors to harm investors and cause investment losses. How? Fraud through market manipulation. Fraud through technical manipulation. Fraud through plain theft. Adverse terms and conditions on a clickthrough agreement. Technical failure, incompetence, malfeasance on the part of the provider. Cyberthreats from third parties online, vandals or burglars. Misrepresentations of the real possibility that cryptocurrency is an object of temporary interest, the bubble will pop, and prices will drop.

And, of course, bad actor conduct includes flawed recommendations by financial advisors to jump in and buy these new, complicated products related to cryptocurrency.  If your portfolio contains investments that, on closer examination, are not plausible or not understandable, that’s one of the ten red flags of financial fraud.

As a securities attorney, I represent investors nationwide who have lost money due to the conduct of a financial professional or a defective investment product.

The Investor Defenders at Samuels Yoelin Kantor LLP help investors get their money back from brokerage fraud, fraudulent investments, elder financial abuse, and other situations.  Our specialized investment litigation practice combines familiarity with complex financial modeling, experience with specialized FINRA arbitration rules and securities laws, and empathy for our clients whose financial losses have become personal.

If you have concerns about how your money is being handled by your financial professional, or if your broker has stopped returning your calls, contact me for a free, confidential consultation at 1-800-647-8130.

Darlene Pasieczny’s practice at Samuels Yoelin Kantor focuses on all stages of corporate and securities law issues, securities litigation and FINRA arbitration, fiduciary litigation in trust and estate disputes, and complex civil litigation. Darlene’s practice also includes representing investors nationwide in investment disputes.

Investor Alert – Cryptocurrency Stock Scams

FINRA recently released an Investor Alert on cryptocurrency scams. Investors should be wary of jumping into this “hot,” volatile sector, and do their research before handing over their money to a potential fraudster, or for a risky investment that they don’t understand.

In the last quarter, cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ripple have received a fresh burst of press attention. This includes reporting on massive price swings up and down, and stories of overnight millionaires. According to the media, a Welsh man who spilled lemonade on his laptop in 2013 and absentmindedly threw the hard drive away now wants to mine the local dump for the hard drive. Why? It contained the key to access his lost Bitcoin fortune said to be worth $100 million — but only if he finds it and if the drive is still operational.  It’s a good metaphor for Wild West, gold rush atmosphere of the whole cryptocurrency hype.

With this Investor Alert, and other recent warnings, FINRA points out that:

According to a December 11, 2017, public statement from SEC Chairman Jay Clayton, the number of such investments registered with the SEC is ZERO. “Investors should understand that to date no initial coin offerings have been registered with the SEC. The SEC also has not to date approved for listing and trading any exchange-traded products (such as ETFs) holding cryptocurrencies or other assets related to cryptocurrencies.”

As a securities attorney, I represent investors nationwide who have lost money due to the conduct of a financial professional or a defective investment product.

The Investor Defenders at Samuels Yoelin Kantor LLP help investors get their money back from brokerage fraud, fraudulent investments, elder financial abuse, and other situations.  Our specialized investment litigation practice combines familiarity with complex financial modeling, experience with specialized FINRA arbitration rules and securities laws, and empathy for our clients whose financial losses have become personal.

If you have concerns about how your money is being handled by your financial professional, or if your broker has stopped returning your calls, contact me. Consultations are free and confidential. Call 1-800-647-8130 now.

Darlene Pasieczny’s practice at Samuels Yoelin Kantor focuses on all stages of corporate and securities law issues, securities litigation and FINRA arbitration, fiduciary litigation in trust and estate disputes, and complex civil litigation. Darlene’s practice also includes representing investors nationwide in investment disputes.

Investor Rights Update: Investor Choice and a Uniform Fiduciary Standard

Investor Choice. Since 1987, when the Supreme Court decided McMahon v. Shearson Lehman Brothers, investors have been denied their Constitutional right to a jury trial. Instead, if they have lost money through the fraud or negligence of a FINRA-licensed stockbroker, financial advisor or brokerage firm, investors are required to bring their cases through the FINRA arbitration process. Although we have seen benefits for many of our clients in using the FINRA arbitration forum over the last 23 years, some cases are better resolved in court by a judge and jury. Investor Choice simply allows investors to choose between FINRA arbitration and court. Congressman Ellison from Minnesota has introduced the Investor Choice Act, which would give investors that choice. There is no legitimate reason for barring investors from the courthouse doors. Congress should side with individuals and not with Wall Street firms. Call your representatives and urge them to support Investor Choice!

Uniform Fiduciary Standard. A fiduciary standard requires nothing more than putting the investor’s needs ahead of the brokerage firm. That is what investors expect from a financial adviser, and that is what brokerage firms claim to provide. But, that is not what happens in reality. PIABA prepared and distributed to Congress and the press a compelling report that collected advertisements of brokerage firms, all of which declare that they put investors first. When those same firms face FINRA arbitration claims from investors for mismanagement and fraud, however, they deny that they owe any fiduciary obligations to their clients. The PIABA report includes specific examples of the defenses that the firms file. We see the same tired defense routinely raised when we include claims for breach of fiduciary duty. The Wall Street firms claim that their only obligation is to make “suitable” investment recommendations.

What’s the difference between a suitability standard and a fiduciary standard?

Commissions and fees. A suitable investment must be in line with an investor’s investment objectives and risk tolerance levels, but it need not necessarily be in the investor’s best interest. Say that there are two mutual funds, each consisting of a similar broad mix of stocks and bonds. One charges the investor a 3% commission and the other 1%. Under the pure suitability standard, the financial advisor may be able to recommend only the higher commissioned product, even if he is fully aware of the lower cost fund and it is readily available. Under a fiduciary standard, he could not. Does that matter? It does. The White House issued a report recently that explained that even a 1% difference in commissions results in many thousands of dollars in the value of a retirement account over time. Jason Zweig, an insightful columnist on investor issues at The Wall Street Journal, has made similar observations. Currently, registered investment advisors are held to a fiduciary standard, but financial advisers who work at a brokerage firm are not, at least under federal law.   Investors don’t know the difference between investment advisors who are registered with the SEC and financial advisors who are FINRA licensed.  And, practically speaking, there is no difference. Both provide investment advice to their clients. SEC Chairperson Mary Jo White and the White House have stated that we need a uniform federal fiduciary standard for all advisers, whether they are FINRA licensed or SEC registered. PIABA agrees, and I agree. You should too. The claims of the financial services industry that a fiduciary standard would prevent middle class Americans from getting financial advice is bunk. Many states, including Oregon and California, already impose fiduciary obligations on advisers that advise their clients on what investments to make, and investors in those states get the same advice and service as investors in non-fiduciary duty states.

Darlene Pasieczny’s practice at Samuels Yoelin Kantor LLP focuses on all stages of corporate and securities law issues, securities litigation and FINRA arbitration, fiduciary litigation in trust and estate disputes, and complex civil litigation. Darlene’s practice includes representing investors nationwide in investment disputes through FINRA arbitration.

2013 at the SEC

Today is the last day of the chairmanship of Mary Schapiro at the SEC. As investor advocates, let’s look ahead at major issues for the SEC in 2013. It’ll be a busy year. There are at least five large-scale reforms under way, all with a bearing on the safety of equity investments.

Mary Schapiro took the reigns of the agency in the immediate wake of the Madoff scandal and the 2008 financial crisis. She’ll be replaced on an interim basis by Commissioner Elisse Walter. This change in leadership also means a two-to-two partisan split between the remaining commission members, a wider staff change among heads of divisions and lower levels of officials, and waiting for President Obama’s candidate for Schapiro’s permanent replacement, who must be confirmed by the Senate. It may be months before the agency’s cast of characters is settled.

There’s significant catching up to do. In Schapiro’s own view, in an exit interview with NPR today, her “major disappointment” was the failure to reform money market funds, which continue to be popularly regarded as “equivalent to a bank account”, but which remain vulnerable to a run, as shown in 2008. “We did not have three votes on the commission in August to go forward with a plan that had a couple of different options in it. One was to require money market funds to have a small capital buffer, the way banks have a capital buffer, to absorb losses. The other was to have them float their share value to reflect the underlying investments…. Money market funds are a source of systemic risk, unless we go forward with either capital or a floating share price.”

The agency still needs to complete the implementation of its 95 financial market reform rules called for by the Dodd-Frank Act. As of early December, 32 of those 95 have been finalized. Some consumer advocates (Barbara Roper of the Consumer Federation of America, among others) question the true bite of the 32 rules already finalized. At the same time, in January the chairmanship of the House Financial Services Committee goes over to a Texas Republican who has called for the repeal of the entire Act. As the New York Times pointed out on Monday lobbying and legal challenges against Dodd-Frank have been frequent, heavy and well-funded. That, you can be sure, will continue.

Crowdfunding advocates continue to impatiently press the SEC to hurry up with the rulemaking that would regulate the advertisement and sale of equity securities online. “Funding portals” as authorized under the JOBS Act signed in April remain illegal until regulation is complete. The most optimistic projection for having rules in place is summer of 2013. In the meantime, a small army of start-ups claim to have found legal crowdfunding business models using debt funding, donations, or state-level regulatory workarounds. And the state regulators in NASAA have told us to prepare for an explosion of fraudulent offerings and a long line of burned investors next summer, even with the new rules in place. Our guidance here is simple. Do not invest online.

Since the “flash crash” of 2010, and more recently since the spectacular $440M self-destruction of Knight Capital in August of this year blamed on a technology error, high-frequency trading continues to loom as an issue crying out for regulation. Or, better said, multiple issues: issues of fair market access for smaller investors, issues of the systematic high-speed version of the ancient front running tactic now deemed “flash trading”, issues of market volatility, and issues of vulnerability to computer error posing a systemic risk to the entire market.

And then there’s the CAT. This month the SEC will be asked to approve an eight-month delay for the implementation of its massive Consolidated Audit Trail system. FINRA, along with the operators of the markets to be monitored by CAT (13 equity exchanges, 10 options markets, and more than 200 broker-dealers), will ask to move the deadline from April 2013 out to next December. CAT will provide regulators new tools for targeted surveillance and broad analysis of market activity. A cradle-to-grave audit trail for each stock transaction has, surprisingly, never been done before. Its price tag is around $4B.

We believe Mary Schapiro has done an admirable job in an underfunded and politically controversial agency. We also believe that SEC rules are absolutely necessary but cannot, by themselves, prevent you from being victimized by unscrupulous brokers and advisors.

SEC will delay huge market tracking system

(December 3) The Securities and Exchange Commission will be asked to approve an eight-month delay for the implementation of its massive Consolidate Audit Trail system.

FINRA, along with the operators of the markets to be monitored by CAT (13 equity exchanges, 10 options markets, and more than 200 broker-dealers), will all ask to move the deadline from April 2013 out to next December. CAT will provide regulators new tools for targeted surveillance and broad analysis of market activity. A cradle-to-grave audit trail for each stock transaction has, surprisingly, never been done before. Its price tag is around $4B.

(Bloomberg News at www.businessweek.com)

Upcoming SCOTUS case examines ‘discovery rule’

(September 25) A case to be decided this year by the U.S. Supreme Court may effectively extend the window of time for potential plaintiffs who suffered losses in the 2008 financial crisis.

The case Gabelli et. al. v Securities Exchange Commission hinges on the application of the five-year statutory limitation time clock, called the “discovery rule,” which starts at discovery of fraud, not at the time of the fraud itself. Fund manager Marc Gabelli’s secret and fraudulent market-timing was uncovered by then-New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer in 2003 but the SEC did not pursue its civil case until 2008.

A Supreme Court finding for the SEC will likely encourage new civil securities fraud suits. Either way, the ruling will clear up contradictory opinions of multiple federal circuit cases.

(Reuters news service at www.reuters.com)