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The SEC warns investors about potential ICO scams and 'pump and dump' schemes

  • The SEC issued a warning against potential ICO scams and "pump and dump" schemes by public companies.
  • The warning follows recent trading suspensions by the SEC over the accuracy of four OTC-traded company ICOs.
  • This is the latest sign that the SEC may be stepping up its level of scrutiny on the cryptocurrency space.
Red flag danger
Mark Langridge | Getty Images

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission issued a warning on Monday about potential internet coin offering (ICO) scams and "pump and dump" schemes by public companies.

The warning is aimed at alerting investors about the risks of investing in public companies that promote ICOs and deliberately "pump" the prices of their offerings with "new and emerging technologies."

"Fraudsters often try to use the lure of new and emerging technologies to convince potential victims to invest their money in scams. These frauds include 'pump-and-dump' and market manipulation schemes involving publicly traded companies that claim to provide exposure to these new technologies," the SEC said in the warning.

An ICO is similar to a stock IPO, but instead of buying shares in the company, investors are buying digital "tokens" used on cryptocurrency platforms. Companies built on blockchain, a digital database for recording financial transactions and other types of deals, raise money by selling these tokens, which can typically be used to pay for goods and services on their platform, or just stashed away as an investment.

This is the latest in the SEC's effort to crack down on the burgeoning cryptocurrency market. Last month, the SEC signaled for the first time that securities laws may apply to the sale of new digital coins.

And more recently, the SEC has suspended trading activities of four OTC-based companies over questions around their ICOs. Those companies include First Bitcoin Capital Corp., CIAO Group, Strategic Global and Sunshine Capital. The SEC raised concerns around each company's "accuracy" of information or "value" of assets before announcing their trading suspensions.

Semil Shah, general partner of Haystack and an early investor in the crypto space, said the SEC's memo should serve as a warning to scammers trying to manipulate unsuspecting retail investors by promoting access to new technologies, like the blockchain.

"Right now, awareness of Bitcoin, the blockchain, and the liquidity around ICOs can be marketed to unsophisticated investors who may have heard of these things and want exposure," Shah said. "The term 'ICO' in general has become more recognized but also more fraught with skepticism from sophisticated investors. Here, the SEC is watching, as well."