SEC thwarts pump-and-dump spammer

The Securities and Exchange Commission today announced a settlement with a lawyer in California they say helped assist a multi-million dollar fraud by issuing a series of bogus legal opinion letters used by fraudsters in spam-fueled pump-and-dump schemes.

Pump-and-dump stock spam, in which the spammer blasts messages persuading people to buy a penny stock, then once the stock price goes up the spammer sells his shares at a profit, has represented some of the largest spam blasts this year. Sophos last year said such spam accounts for roughly 25% of all spam, up from 0.8% in January 2005.

In this case the SEC said attorney Kenneth Christison of Mill Valley, Calif. wrote opinion of counsel letters warranting that certain offerings of securities were exempt from the registration provisions of the federal securities laws and that there were no restrictions on resale of the securities sold in those offerings, the SEC said. 

Those letters were used by Arizona-based traders Michael Paloma and Lawrence Kaplan in an elaborate market manipulation scheme that involved unlawfully taking public seven microcap companies (companies valued under $300,000 typically), inflating their share prices, and dumping millions of shares into the public market. They touted the companies’ shares and netted nearly $3 million in ill-gotten gains by disseminating millions of false or misleading blast faxes and spam e-mails. The duo also has pleaded guilty in federal court in Alexandria, Va., to charges of securities fraud, and face sentencing later this year, according to the SEC.

According to the commission, Christison knew or should have known that his opinion letter would contribute to Paloma’s unregistered public distribution of securities through non-exempt transactions. The Commission further alleged that Christison, in fact, possessed documents and other information signaling Paloma’s intent to conduct unlawful distributions by ultimately selling these securities into the public marketplace.

Without admitting or denying the accusations, Christison consented to the entry of an order directing him to cease and desist from committing or causing violations of Sections 5(a) and 5(c), the registration provisions, of the Securities Act of 1933.

“Christison’s connivance set the stage for swindlers to carry out an egregious fraud against investors,” said Linda Chatman Thomsen, Director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement in a statement.

The SEC news follows last month’s bust of 11 people, including one of the top spammers in the world, for allegedly sending millions of unsolicited e-mails intended to inflate the price of Chinese penny stocks.  

The U.S. Department of Justice called the scheme one of the largest spamming and fraud operations in the U.S. The 41-count indictment charges the defendants with conspiracy, several types of fraud, and money laundering.  The indictment alleges the group sent spam via botnets, or networks of hacked computers. A three-year investigation revealed the e-mails, which implored investors to buy cheap stocks, contained fake headers and other misleading information, the DOJ said.

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