What Is Pump-and-Dump?

Pump-and-dump is a manipulative scheme that attempts to boost the price of a stock or security through fake recommendations. These recommendations are based on false, misleading, or greatly exaggerated statements. The perpetrators of a pump-and-dump scheme already have an established position in the company's stock and will sell their positions after the hype has led to a higher share price.

This practice is illegal based on securities law and can lead to heavy fines. The burgeoning popularity of cryptocurrencies has resulted in the proliferation of pump-and-dump schemes within the industry.

Key Takeaways

  • Pump-and-dump is an illegal scheme to boost a stock's or security's price based on false, misleading, or greatly exaggerated statements.
  • Pump-and-dump schemes usually target micro- and small-cap stocks.
  • People found guilty of running pump-and-dump schemes are subject to heavy fines.
  • Pump-and-dump schemes are increasingly found in the cryptocurrency industry.
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Pump And Dump

The Basics of Pump-and-Dump

Pump-and-dump schemes were traditionally conducted through cold calling. The advent of the Internet has shifted most of this activity online; fraudsters can now blast hundreds of thousands of email messages to unsuspecting targets or post messages online enticing investors to buy a stock quickly.

These messages typically claim to have inside information about an imminent development that will lead to a dramatic upswing in the share's price. Once buyers jump in and the stock has moved up significantly, the perpetrators of the pump-and-dump scheme sell their shares. In these instances, the volume of the sales of these shares is usually substantial, causing the stock price to drop dramatically. In the end, many investors experience huge losses.

Pump-and-dump schemes generally target micro- and small-cap stocks on over-the-counter exchanges that are less regulated than traditional exchanges. Micro-cap stocks—and occasionally, small-cap stocks—are favored for this type of abusive activity because they are easier to manipulate. Micro-cap stocks generally have a small float, low trading volumes, and limited corporate information. As a result, it does not take a lot of new buyers to push a stock much higher.

Pump-and-Dump 2.0

The same scheme can be perpetrated by anyone with access to an online trading account and the ability to convince other investors to buy a stock that is supposedly "ready to take off." The schemer can get the action going by buying heavily into a stock that trades on low volume, which usually pumps up the price.

The price action induces other investors to buy heavily, pumping the share price even higher. At any point when the perpetrator feels the buying pressure is ready to fall off, they can dump their shares for a big profit.

Pump-and-Dump in Pop Culture

The pump-and-dump scheme formed the central theme of two popular movies: "Boiler Room" and "The Wolf of Wall Street." Both of these movies featured a warehouse full of telemarketing stockbrokers pitching penny stocks. In each case, the brokerage firm was a market maker and held a large volume of shares in companies with highly questionable prospects. The firms' leaders incentivized their brokers with high commissions and bonuses for placing the stock in as many customer accounts as possible. In doing so, the brokers were pumping up the price through huge volume selling.

Once the selling volume reached critical mass with no more buyers, the firm dumped its shares for a huge profit. This drove the stock price down, often below the original selling price, resulting in big losses for the customers because they could not sell their shares in time.

Avoiding Pump-and-Dump Schemes

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has some tips to help avoid becoming a victim of a pump-and-dump scheme. Here are some points to keep in mind:

Be Extremely Wary of Unsolicited Investment Offers

Exercise extreme caution if you receive an unsolicited communication regarding an "investment opportunity." The plethora of avenues for virtual communication means that such dubious investment pitches can reach you in any number of ways—by way of an email, a comment or post on your social media page, a direct message, or a call or voicemail on your cellphone. Ignore such messages; acting on them may result in significant losses rather than the massive gains promised by the scammers.

Look Out for Obvious Red Flags

Does the purported investment sound too good to be true? Does it promise huge "guaranteed" returns? Are you pressured to buy right now, before the stock takes off? These are all common tactics used by stock touts and unscrupulous promoters and should be viewed as red flags by investors.

Look Out for Affinity Fraud

Affinity fraud refers to investment scams that prey upon members of identifiable groups, such as religious or ethnic communities, the elderly, or professional groups. An investment pitch from a member of a group that you are affiliated with may lead you to believe in its credibility; the problem is that the member may have been unwittingly fooled into believing that an investment is legitimate (when in reality, it is just a scam).

Conduct Your Own Research and Due Diligence

Before you invest your hard-earned money, conduct your own research and due diligence. It is fairly easy to obtain a wealth of information online about legitimate companies—from their business prospects and management to their financial statements. The lack of such information can often be a red flag in itself.

Pump-and-Dump 3.0

The cryptocurrency market has become the newest arena for pump-and-dump schemes. The massive gains made by bitcoin and ethereum have kindled tremendous interest in cryptocurrencies of every stripe. Unfortunately, cryptocurrencies are particularly well-suited for pump-and-dump schemes because of the lack of regulation in the cryptocurrency market, its opaqueness, and the technical complexity of cryptocurrencies.

A study conducted in 2018 examined the prevalence of pump-and-dump schemes in the cryptocurrency market. Researchers identified more than 3,700 different schemes that were messaged about and advertised on two popular cryptocurrency messaging boards between January and July 2018. The identified messaging urged investors to buy specific coins.

In March 2021, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) advised customers to avoid pump-and-dump schemes that can occur in thinly traded or new cryptocurrencies. The CFTC also unveiled a program that would make any whistleblower eligible for a monetary reward of between 10% and 30%, as long as they reveal original enforcement action that leads to monetary sanctions of $1 million or more against a pump-and-dump scheme.