LONDON: Eight social media influencers have been charged with conspiracy to commit securities fraud by exploiting their status to manipulate stock prices and net $114 million.
If found guilty, the eight men, aged 23 to 38, each face a maximum of 25 years in prison.
The US Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Justice jointly announced the charges in a news release on Wednesday, highlighting that the defendants “promoted themselves as successful traders’ on Twitter and Discord.
The Twitter influencers had a total following of 1.5 million, which they used alongside messaging platform Discord to hype market-traded securities without disclosing plans to sell once the prices surged, reported BBC News citing prosecutors.
Seven were also charged with other financial crimes in the alleged pump-and-dump scheme.
According to the SEC news release, “the eight defendants have, for years, promoted themselves as trustworthy stock-picking gurus,” when, “in reality, they are seasoned stock manipulators.”
The alleged scheme ran between January 2020 and April 2022.
The SEC complaint includes violations of the Securities Act and the Securities Exchange Act.
The defendants are Perry Matlock, Edward Constantin, Thomas Cooperman, Gary Deel, Mitchell Hennessey, Stefan Hrvatin, John Rybarcyzk and Daniel Knight.
The SEC seeks permanent injunctions, disgorgement, prejudgment interest and civil penalties against each defendant, as well as a penny stock bar against Hrvatin.
The influencers were aided by Knight, who with Hennessey, hosted a popular stock-trading podcast promoting the group as expert traders. Matlock and Constantin are cofounders of Atlas Trading, a popular stock trading online community that had a Discord chatroom.
According to the Department of Justice prosecutors, the defendants posted “false, positive” information about each stock in order to “artificially drive up its price.” They then “secretly” sold off their own shares after the price had risen, and “concealed” the move from their followers.
The influencers often posted photos of their extravagant lifestyles and used their platforms to encourage social media followers to share in their financial rewards, according to prosecutors.
“The defendants used their social media credibility to maximize their own profits at the expense of their followers,” prosecutors said.
“Financial crimes like securities fraud may not be violent, but they certainly are not victimless,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge James Smith.
Criminal and civil charges were filed against them in the US District Court for the Southern District of Texas.