Articles Posted in Securities Fraud

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.

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.

The recent announcement of securities fraud charges against Trevor Milton, the former CEO of Nikola Corporation, may prove to be the first in a line of similar cases involving electric vehicle (“EV”) companies, and more broadly, companies that go public via SPACs. This situation highlights the importance of careful investment decision making, particularly in the EV and other rapidly growing, highly complex industries.

At the heart of the civil and criminal complaints against Nikola are allegations that as its CEO, Trevor Milton, regularly spread false and misleading information about the progress of Nikola’s EV products and technologies. Nikola’s focus is on manufacturing low- and zero-emissions trucks, and the complaints allege in part that under Milton, Nikola published a promotional video of a prototype truck which did not actually work, but appeared to only because the truck was set in neutral and rolled down a hill.  [1]

Promotional videos like that one, along with Milton’s enthusiastic social media posts and numerous podcast and television appearances, all painted a picture of exciting and impressive forward progress at Nikola, which Federal prosecutors and SEC regulators allege was nothing more than an illusion. [2]

On June 30, 2021, FINRA ordered an approximately $70 Million financial penalty against Robinhood Financial LLC, the highest such penalty ever levied by the regulatory organization.[1] Through its investigation of the firm, FINRA charged Robinhood with numerous violations which had resulted in significant losses to their customers. While Robinhood neither confirmed nor denied the validity of FINRA’s charges, they ultimately agreed to settle with these massive sanctions. [1]

FINRA noted three major violations from its investigation into Robinhood’s conduct and operations as a stock-trading app, each of which merited its own penalties.

First, FINRA found that Robinhood has pervasively and negligently provided false or misleading information to its customers. [1] This false information was circulated in spite of Robinhood’s core mission to “de-mystify finance for all” and “democratize finance,” and ranged from misrepresenting customer account balances and buying power, to erroneous communication about customers facing margin calls. [2]

In the span of the last two months, a digital piece of art sold for nearly $70 million, Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, sold his first tweet for $2.8 million, and a digital Lebron James basketball card went for $208,000. What do these three massive sales have in common? Each transaction was for a non-fungible token (NFT), and together, they signal rapidly growing interest in the cryptographic asset marketplace.

Starting with the basics, what is a non-fungible token?

An NFT is a type of digital, cryptographic asset which exists on blockchain. Fungibility refers to interchangeability – assets like dollars, gold, and even Bitcoin, are fungible, because each unit is worth the exact same amount, and is thus readily interchangeable. On the other hand, each unit of a non-fungible asset has its own unique value and thus is not readily interchangeable – think of assets like property, artwork, and other collectibles. [1]

As they begin to move into the mainstream, it has become clear that cryptocurrencies pose a unique set of regulatory and legal challenges for investors and regulation agencies alike. In the past week alone, two high-profile securities fraud cases tied to cryptocurrency have come to light, and the total number of enforcement actions by the SEC on similar schemes has risen sharply over the past five years. In 2016, the SEC filed only one “Digital Assets/Initial Coin Offerings” enforcement action – in 2020, they filed 23.

The first cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, was introduced in 2009, and it has since been joined by over 1,900 competitors. Cryptocurrencies operate in a decentralized, purely digital block-chain network. Within the network, a supply cap on “coins” exists, and coin production is left in the hands of collective members of the system through a process known as “mining.” In Bitcoin’s case, there can only ever be 21 million coins mined, of which over 18 million have been mined thus far. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin derive their value largely from their limited supply, overall market demand, the cost to produce a bitcoin via mining, and competition from other cryptocurrencies.

Recently, Bitcoin’s price has been on the rise, stirring up a good deal of interest from prospective investors. As of February 6, 2021, one bitcoin is worth $39,255.90 –up about 300% year over year, and 34% year to date. But an investment in Bitcoin, or other cryptocurrencies like it, is unique in its risks. Experts caution that because cryptocurrency is a relatively new technology, and is not yet well understood by the public, prospective investors are at an increased risk of falling victim to fraudulent schemes.

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