SEC Warns of Initial Coin Offering Fraud Risks

Fraudsters could be using “the lure of new and emerging technologies to convince potential victims" to invest in companies that promote ICOs.
Matthew HellerAugust 29, 2017

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has issued a warning about digital coin offerings, telling investors they could be used to manipulate a company’s stock price.

The commission has been stepping up its scrutiny of offers and sales of digital assets, including “initial coin offerings” (ICOs) or “token sales.” In an investor alert released on Monday, it warned that fraudsters could be using “the lure of new and emerging technologies to convince potential victims to invest their money” in publicly traded companies that claim to provide exposure to these new technologies.

The possible frauds, the SEC said, include market manipulation schemes through which companies publicly announce ICO or coin/token related events “to affect the price of the company’s common stock.”

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The SEC’s move “appears to be a clear shot across the bow for the publicly traded companies that are trying to artificially inflate their stock price through ICOs,” Finance Magnates said, noting that the alert primarily focuses on stock promoters rather than unregulated providers that sell their tokens without regulatory oversight.

Dozens of companies have completed, or are in the midst of, raising hundreds of millions through the ICO process. But last month, the SEC delivered a jolt to the market by indicating that federal securities laws apply to the sale of new digital coins.

More recently, the commission suspended trading activities of four OTC-based companies over questions around their ICOs. Those companies include Canada-based First Bitcoin Capital, which has seen its market capitalization grow 43% in one week and 6072% year to date.

In Monday’s alert, the SEC also warned of “pump-and-dump” scams involving ICOs and said investors should look out for such red flags as a company claiming that its ICO is “SEC-compliant” without explaining how the offering is in compliance with the securities laws.

“Right now, awareness of Bitcoin, the blockchain, and the liquidity around ICOs can be marketed to unsophisticated investors who may have heard of these things and want exposure,” Semil Shah, general partner of Haystack and an early investor in the crypto space, told CNBC.