It sounded far-fetched — a "stock-picking robot" that could identify penny stocks poised to double in price.
Turns out, it was.
Federal regulators filed a civil complaint Friday against 20-year-old twin brothers in Britain, claiming that they duped 75,000 people — mostly Americans — into paying $47 each to get stock tips from a robot dubbed Marl. They told investors that Marl ran on a computer code written partly by a onetime Goldman Sachs programmer who didn't exist, the Securities and Exchange Commission said.
Alexander John Hunter and Thomas Edward Hunter launched the scheme in 2007, when they were just 16, and took in at least $1.2 million from gullible investors, the SEC said.
And that was just the half of it, according to the federal complaint. The brothers also are accused of running a related con offering their services as stock promoters, claiming they could "rocket" a stock's price by touting it to subscribers in their newsletter.
The SEC said the Hunters were paid at least $1.9 million by "known or suspected stock promoters" to push their shares. This they did — to the clients who had signed up for Marl the robot's stock-picking predictions, the agency said.
A Washington-based lawyer for the Hunters did not return a telephone call seeking comment.
Touting a robot as an expert in deciphering Wall Street is a new twist on the "pump and dump" scam that regulators have been cracking down on for decades.
These schemes involve fraudsters promoting shares of small, thinly traded companies as the next hot investment in the hopes of artificially inflating the stock's value. When the stock's price shoots up, the perpetrators dump their own shares at a big profit.
In years past, this kind of fraud was perpetrated by cold calls and mass mailings. Today, the action has moved to the Internet, and that means tech-savvy teenagers can pull off scams once reserved for smooth-talking con men, said Jacob Frenkel, an attorney at Shulman Rogers in Potomac, Md.
"It highlights the sophistication of teenagers when it comes to technology and the susceptibility and gullibility of investors to supposedly surefire ways to beat the market," he said.
Securities regulators have gone after a handful of teens in the past, although their schemes generally were less elaborate than what the Hunters are accused of doing.
One of the earliest occurred in California. The SEC settled a case in 2002 against a 17-year-old Mission Viejo boy accused of pocketing more than $1 million by promising "risk-free" investment returns of up to 2,500%. Two years earlier, the SEC settled a case against a New Jersey high school student accused of posting hundreds of misleading messages on Yahoo message boards talking up stocks he owned.
The SEC is suing the Hunters for ill-gotten gains and unspecified financial penalties. Frenkel said that if the SEC wins its suit, it probably would ask a British court to enforce the judgment.
According to the agency: The Hunters created dual websites — daytradingrobot.com and doublingstocks.com — that advertised their investing newsletter based on the fake robot's picks. The websites were used to drive up shares of the companies they were promoting. Meanwhile, they created a third website — equitypromoter.com — that offered to tout stocks for a fee. "One email to this list of people rockets a stock price," the brothers promised.
"While touting their supposed breakthrough investment technology on two websites, the Hunters were racking up fees as stock promoters through a third," Thomas A. Sporkin, chief of the SEC's office of market intelligence, said in a statement.
For example, the SEC said, the Hunters touted wireless products firm Teletouch Communications Inc. on Dec. 16, 2008. Trading volume on the Fort Worth company's shares exploded to 593,900 over two days, from an average of 2,300 a day. The stock skyrocketed 246% to 45 cents a share — up from 13 cents — two days after it was touted.
The Hunters' "robot" also recommended UOMO Media Inc., a Toronto music recording firm, the SEC said. Shares of that company's stock soared 203% within two days of the May 2009 plug, closing at $1.06 a share, up from 35 cents, the agency said. The stock now trades for less than a penny a share.
Many people voiced doubts about Marl on Internet message boards over the years. But that didn't stop a trail of now-aggrieved investors from plopping down their money.
"I bought a few of their recommendations and I'm still holding on to worthless stock," an investor who identified himself as Jeff Davis wrote in May 2010 on the website TradeProfits. "Its a scam!"
An investor on another site bemoaned an errant stock pick in 2007: "Hmmmmmmmmm, maybe MARL has a virus."