Last Wednesday the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) charged Anthony Fields, an Illinois-based independent advisor, with offering more than $500 billion in fictitious securities to his LinkedIn connections. (The SEC simultaneously issued three Risk Alerts. More on those can be found here.)
According to the SEC, Fields made “guarantees” to potential investors and tried to sell them specific financial products via LinkedIn. He also provided false and misleading information to the public concerning his company’s assets, clients, and operations. He projected himself as a FINRA-registered broker-dealer, even though he wasn’t licensed.
This was a case of attempted fraud, pure and simple: the man was not registered with the SEC, and the securities he attempted to sell did not exist.
Robert B. Kaplan, co-chief of the SEC Enforcement Division’s Asset Management Unit, released a statement saying “Fraudsters are quick to adapt to new technologies to exploit them for unlawful purposes.” Some reporters misinterpreted that statement and sounded the alarms on social media—citing new platforms of communication as breading grounds for consumer exploitation.
Let us be clear. New channels of communication are not the problem. Consumers/investors can’t be defrauded without a person behind the deceit. And fraudsters will find a way to approach their victims, if not via social media, then through in-person meetings, phone calls, email, or any other mode of communication.
So, even though social media isn’t the cause of the fraud, what can consumers can do to protect themselves? Understanding any platform that one uses, implementing appropriate privacy controls, and using the same common sense and intuition that we would for in face-to-face interactions are key.
Financial institutions can also protect consumers by closely monitoring advisor use of social media. In the case of enterprise-scale use of social media, technology is crucial to preventing infractions of SEC and FINRA regulations and preventing fraud. Equally important, social media empowers advisors to communicate with consumers through a new productivity tool.
The Hearsay Social Compliance Module is designed to prevent this type of incident for our customers. If Fields had worked for a Hearsay Social customer, his “guarantees” to potential investors would have been picked up as potential infractions and the specific product recommendations would have been flagged in our Supervision and Real-time Remediation features. And if Fields had projected himself as working for a Hearsay Social customer but didn’t, our patent-pending Rogue Page Finder would have picked up his profile.
The SEC and FINRA have made it it clear that they will not tolerate fraud, no matter whether it occurs over the phone, over email, or over social media. Compliance Officers should make sure they are deploying an enterprise-wide compliance solution soon.