If you think self-proclaimed "Wolf of Wall Street" Jordan Belfort's pump-and-dump scam is a colorful piece of stock market history that's been addressed by regulatory reforms, look no further than an order just this week from the Securities and Exchange Commission. It's proof the practices that made Belfort a legend among crooks are alive and well.
The order suspends trading in 128 so-called penny stocks, also known as microcaps, over-the-counter, or pink sheet securities—the same kinds of stocks that Belfort and his Stratton Oakmont cronies trafficked in. Ostensibly, they are shares of companies that are too small to be listed on a stock exchange. As a result, they are subject to less stringent standards than big corporations. The stocks sell for as little as a few cents a share.
Some penny stocks are legitimate. A small company, say a start-up with an innovative product, could decide to sell microcap shares to the public as a way to raise money for expansion. Theoretically, an investor can buy a piece of the action for a small amount of money, and then make a killing if the company takes off. Say you buy 1,000 shares of Company X at 10 cents a share, and the price climbs to $5.00. Your $100 investment is now worth $5,000—a 4,900 percent increase!
Some investors find those kinds of returns hard to resist, which is exactly what scam artists are still counting on 20 years after Belfort's penny stock scam came to an end.
Because microcap companies issue such a small number of shares, a crooked brokerage can accumulate enough to manipulate them Belfort-style—hyping the stock to unsuspecting investors in order to pump up the price, then dumping the rest until the stock becomes worthless and the investors who bought during the run-up are wiped out.
The new SEC order targets dozens of companies in 24 states and Canada that officials say could be fodder for future pump-and-dump schemes. All the stocks have legitimate-sounding names. They even have ticker symbols like their big-stock brethren. But the agency says these companies are essentially zombie stocks—dormant firms that a modern-day Belfort could seize, pump and dump.
And there are plenty more where these stocks came from. The SEC says since it began its latest crackdown on microcaps in 2012, it has suspended more than 800 of these so-called shell stocks, representing a whopping 8 percent of the over-the-counter market. And it's not over yet.
"We are getting increasingly aggressive and adept at ridding the microcap marketplace of dormant shells within a year of the companies becoming inactive," SEC Director of Enforcement Andrew Ceresney said in a statement.
Still, with more than 800 market manipulation cases investigated by the SEC last year alone, pump-and-dumps remain among the most common investor complaints. That's troubling to those scammed by Belfort more than two decades ago.
Bob Shearin lost more than $100,000 at the hands of Stratton Oakmont.
"That firm seeded a lot of scammers," Shearin tells "American Greed." "The cockroaches left Stratton Oakmont and just filtered out throughout the industry, continuing to do harm."
Tom Pokorny, who lost $800,000 and believes the scam also cost him his marriage, says the Hollywood treatment given to Belfort—and the fact that he spent just 22 months in prison—sends the wrong message to would be scammers.
"I think he should have been in jail longer," Pokorny tells "American Greed." "I mean, two years for wrecking thousands of people's lives? He went away for two years, that's it."
Experts generally urge investors to avoid microcap stocks because of the potential for fraud. But if you're still interested in taking the plunge, the SEC offers an investor's guide.
"Information is the investor's best tool when it comes to investing wisely," the guide begins. The trouble is that by their nature, microcap companies are required to report far less information about their operations than larger companies are. That makes it all the more important to monitor the information the small companies do provide.
All but the smallest public companies must file at least some reports with the SEC, and you can search the filings in the agency's EDGAR database. One of the most obvious red flags is when a company fails to file its SEC reports on time. If the company's ticker symbol suddenly shows up with a fifth letter—"E"—at the end, that's an indication the company has been cited for late filings. If the issue continues, the ticker symbol could vanish entirely and the stock could be halted, leaving you with a potentially worthless investment.
Another place to check is the Over the Counter Bulletin Board or OTCBB, one of the main sources of price information on microcap stocks. Operated by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, the Bulletin Board also maintains a list—updated daily—of companies that have been added and deleted from the Bulletin Board, and the reasons why.
Remember, when it comes to stocks or any other investment, the higher the return, the greater the risk.
"The Wolf of Wall Street" may have been an entertaining movie, but Belfort's real-life victims are still dealing with the consequences. And 20 years later, there are plenty of would-be wolves waiting to pounce on you.
Watch "American Greed," Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on CNBC Prime.