As 2021 draws to a close, it is a fitting time to revisit some of the main enforcement actions taken by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) through fiscal year (FY) 2021, which ended on September 30th, 2021.

In total, the number of new enforcement actions filed by the SEC in FY 2021 increased by 7% over the previous year, with 434 new enforcement actions. While the total number of enforcement actions – including new actions along with other “follow-on” or open proceedings  – decreased slightly year over year in FY 2021, the SEC remained committed to its role as “cop on the beat for America’s securities laws,” as described by Chair Gary Gensler. [1] The SEC maintained a sharp focus on protecting the integrity of the country’s capital markets through enforcement actions against bad actors even in the face of the persisting COVID-19 pandemic persisted.

In announcing its progress on enforcement actions during FY 2021, the SEC concentrated on several key priority areas. Some of these priority areas, per a recent SEC Press Release, included “holding individuals accountable,” “ensuring gatekeepers live up to their obligations,” “rooting out misconduct in crypto,” “policing financial fraud and issuer disclosure,” “cracking down on insider trading and market manipulation,” and “swiftly acting to protect investors.” [1]

While investors should always be alert and even skeptical of unsolicited communications about their investments, an SEC investor alert from November 19, 2021, further highlights how important this vigilance is.

According to the alert provided by the SEC’s Office of Investor Education and Advocacy (“OIEA”),  the SEC has received reports of several individuals receiving communications from people posing as SEC personnel. Whether these communications come in the form of emails, phone calls, or letters, the SEC warns investors that they are “in no way connected to the SEC.” [1]

The fraudulent phone and voicemail messages are particularly misleading because they come from phone numbers that appear to be connected to the SEC. [1] The communications have targeted victims by raising investment-related concerns, such as “suspicious activity” in both checking and cryptocurrency accounts.[1]

A former Texas financial advisor, William Gallagher (“Gallagher”), was sentenced on November 3, 2021, to three life terms in prison for his role in orchestrating a $32 million Ponzi scheme. [1] The Ponzi scheme specifically targeted elderly Christian investors who believed they were investing their retirement funds with a trusted financial advisor, only to later learn that their savings had been decimated.

This sentencing comes after 80-year-old Gallagher pleaded guilty in Texas in August 2021 to three charges relating to the scheme, each bearing a life sentence.

Fraudulent investment schemes targeted at a particular audience such as this one are referred to as cases of affinity fraud. Affinity fraudsters often abuse their position as a trusted member of a particular community to draw in unsuspecting investors, ultimately bilking them of their hard-earned money.

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In the SEC’s pursuit of their mission to “protect investors, maintain fair, orderly, and efficient markets, and facilitate capital formation,” access to information about potential unlawful activity is of unique importance and interest. [1] Without access to such information, the SEC faces a much steeper battle in holding bad actors accountable and protecting both investors and the market.

In support of this broad mission, the SEC established a whistleblower program and a corresponding Office of the Whistleblower to administer the program in 2012. The whistleblower program was established under Section 922 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which added Section 21F to the Securities Exchange Act of 1924 (“the Exchange Act”). [2]

Through this statutory addition, the SEC gained authorization to make monetary awards to “eligible whistleblowers.” These “eligible whistleblowers” are individuals who voluntarily come forward to the SEC with original information about a potential federal securities law violation, which ultimately leads to a successful SEC enforcement action imposing a monetary sanction of over $1 million. [3] Importantly, the Dodd Frank Act protects the confidentiality of all SEC whistleblowers, and no identifying information that could potentially reveal a whistleblower’s identity is released to the public. [4]

Last week, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) released its long-awaited report formally debriefing the events that transpired during the January and February 2021 meme stock craze. The 44-page report, titled “Staff Report on Equity and Options Market Structure Conditions in Early 2021” provides SEC staff’s analysis of the mechanisms behind the meme stock phenomenon, ultimately debunking a few theories made popular over social media and other media outlets as the events unfolded.

By way of a brief overview, in January 2021 a group of about 100 stocks experienced monumental price and trading volume fluctuations. These stocks, many of which were consumer-centered companies with high brand awareness, gained rapid attention over social media platforms like Reddit and YouTube.

While the SEC’s report addresses the events and impacts of the meme stock phenomenon broadly, it focuses the bulk of its analysis around GameStop Corp (“GME”), arguably the most famous of the meme stocks.

In today’s ever-interconnected society, protecting the stability and security of cyber infrastructure and the personal information stored therein has never been of greater importance. Recognizing this need, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) has taken marked steps to protect the security of investor records and information that broker-dealer firms possess.

In fact, the SEC has recently begun sanctioning the very victims of cyberattacks – investment firms that have fallen prey to such attacks – citing their deficient cybersecurity procedures as partly to blame for the unauthorized third-party access to investor’s private information. [1]

On August 30, 2021, the SEC released three orders sanctioning eight firms for their failures in protecting their customers’ personally identifiable information due to inadequate cybersecurity policies and procedures. These orders each proceeded as violations of Rule 30(a) of Regulation S-P, colloquially known as the “Safeguards Rule.” [2]

On September 27th, 2021, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) announced affinity fraud charges against a Miami payday lender, Sky Group USA LLC (“Sky Group”), and its CEO, Efrain Betancourt. [1] The SEC’s complaint lists eight violations of federal securities law centering on allegations of material misrepresentations and omissions regarding Sky Group’s use of investor funds, its profitability, and the safety and security of the promissory notes it sold. [2]

According to the SEC’s complaint, Sky Group ran its fraudulent scheme from at least January 2016 through March 2020. During this time, Sky Group raised approximately $66 million through the sale of promissory notes while representing itself as a payday lender soliciting investors to fund its business. [2]

In particular, Sky Group targeted Venezuelan-American investors in South Florida, who in turn often spread information about the investment opportunity by word-of-mouth. Betancourt specifically pitched Sky Group investments as “a great opportunity for members of the Venezuelan immigrant community to generate investment income,” touting its supposed $70 million loan portfolio as evidence of the investment’s safety.

In an order issued on September 24th, 2021, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) settled with Thomas Powell, Stefan Toth, and two entities they owned, Homebound Resources LLC (“Homebound”) and Resolute Capital Partners LTD LLC (“RCP”) on several charges of investment and securities fraud relating to oil and gas securities offerings. [1]

The SEC’s order concerns a period of time from 2016 through 2019, during which the SEC alleged that respondents made material misrepresentations and omissions about their oil and gas securities offerings. [1] The order states that neither Powell nor Toth were registered nor even associated with a registered broker-dealer during the relevant time period as they sold unregistered securities to investors. [2]

RCP is described as a private equity firm that “gives smart investors access to beyond-Wall Street assets, such as oil and gas wells” by creating, and then offering, oil and gas debt and equity investment vehicles for oil and gas wells. [2] In so doing, RCP relies on Homebound to identify and purchase these oil and gas wells. [2] During the relevant time period, Thomas Powell owned RCP while Stefan Toth owned and managed Homebound. [2]

On Tuesday, September 14th, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) announced its first enforcement action against an alternative data provider, charging the company App Annie Inc. with securities fraud. App Annie and Bertrand Schmitt, its co-founder and former CEO and Chairman, have agreed to pay more than $10 million in a settlement with the SEC on these charges. [1]

While this marks the SEC’s first enforcement action against an alternative data provider, it likely will not be its last, as the use of alternative data in the financial and investment sphere continues to rise. [2] Alternative data (“alt-data”) is data which goes beyond that of traditional corporate financial statements and helps guide investment strategies. [3] Examples of alt-data include mobile device data, credit card transactions, satellite imagery data, product reviews, and even social media activity. [4]

This type of data can be instrumental in making sound investment decisions when it is paired with traditional data from corporate sources, because it provides a broader view of a company’s financial viability. [4] However, it is notoriously difficult to aggregate and analyze given its vast breadth – it’s estimated that the world produces at least 2.5 quintillion bytes of such data daily. [4] This is where companies like App Annie come in.

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