the audit

Bloggers for hire on a penny-stock pump and dump

The Motley Fool digs into a brazen and successful scheme to manipulate share prices
May 22, 2013

The Motley Fool’s Brian Richards posts a fascinating look inside the pump and dump world of penny-stock promoters, reporting how the hype machine worked in the case of a shell company called Goff Corporation.

Richards describes Goff as “a social recruiting-company-turned-Colombian-gold miner,” which should have been enough to scare off any investor with a light on upstairs. Fortunately for penny-stock scammers, there are lots of dopes out there.


Richards reports that investors have traded more Goff shares every day since it IPO’d in March than they have Apple and Exxon, two of the most valuable and liquid stocks on the market. Yahoo Finance puts Goff’s average volume at a whopping 29.3 million shares a day. Exxon’s daily volume was 13 million over the last three months.

Before collapsing 97 percent to 2 pennies apiece, Goff hit 65 cents a share at one point last month. How? It was helped by a flurry of glowing blog posts about this virtually unknown stock’s prospects, and it was boosted by a rent-an-analyst report that initiated coverage with a $4 price target. The analyst was paid to initiate coverage (and tells Richards he got $5,500 and that “the reader should assume the covered company is funding the report directly or indirectly”), and so were at least some of the bloggers.

On April 2, just as the hype game was getting going, a Motley Fool blogger was asked privately about writing a blog post on Goff.

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A person calling himself “John O’Connell,” purportedly representing “Investor Associates, LLC,” contacted the blogger via LinkedIn. O’Connell offered “four-figure” compensation to write a positive article about the company — and when our blogger declined the offer, O’Connell even offered to write it for him, if the blogger would simply post under his own byline.

The blogger still declined, and immediately thereafter brought it to our attention. When I spoke with O’Connell by phone, he told me he had only reached out to two people, neither one taking him up on the offer. He ceased such blogger outreach once realizing it was against Fool rules, he said.

And yet, in a stroke of incredible good fortune and unbelievable coincidence for the stock promoters, somehow blogs got written — glowing blogs, each writing optimistically about a company that, to recap, (1) has never made a single cent and (2) went through a wholesale management and business-model change less than 90 days prior.

Richards reports the site “has banned four bloggers because they submitted suspiciously glowing posts on Goff.” He also notes that SeekingAlpha, a competitor stock-blogging site, published four positive Goff posts during the pump.

And hats off to the blogger, whom Motley Fool doesn’t name, for having the integrity to turn down the bribe. Because others didn’t think anything of it. Here’s one of the banned Motley Fool bloggers:

When we questioned the nature of his Goff post, he said it wasn’t a big deal: “I am on a regular basis offered compensation to write about multiple firms.”

The obvious question here is: How prevalent is corrupt user-generated content like this on the financial blogs? And since the answer to that question is unknowable, how can you trust any of it? Richards reports that Motley Fool has “strict rules against publishing stories on micro-cap companies with limited liquidity and/or low share prices to avoid manipulation of stock price, intentional or not,” but it clearly didn’t work here, at least until it was too late.

But give Motley Fool a lot of credit here for simply doing the story, much less diving into it. Richards doesn’t shy away from reporting how his site’s own blogging platform got abused in the matter. It would have been much easier for Motley Fool to let this story slide. The transparency is refreshing, particularly compared to how ABC, say, has reacted this week after it became clear that anonymous sources manipulated its Jonathan Karl into misleading and false coverage of the Benghazi story (read Jay Rosen’s great piece on that).

The micro-cap underworld is a brutal, scam-ridden area, and there are very few reporters keeping an eye on it. If Motley Fool hadn’t reported on it, there’s a good chance this scam wouldn’t have gotten reported. You can bet there are many, many of them that never do.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR’s business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.