The Securities and Exchange Commission has charged seven social media influencers with securities fraud, saying Wednesday that they were part of a $100 million scheme to use social media platforms Twitter and Discord, as well as podcasts, to manipulate the price of certain stocks.
Though the influencers are not household names, they had accrued more than 2 million followers across various social media platforms, where they routinely posted photos of their wealth including of exotic sports cars.
The influencers charged include “PJ Matlock,” whose real name is Perry Matlock. On Wednesday, he had deactivated his Twitter account, which had more than 340,000 followers.
One person, Daniel Knight, who goes by the online handle “DipDeity,” was charged with “aiding and abetting the alleged scheme” after co-hosting a podcast that promoted the other defendants, the SEC said.
Other defendants include Edward Constantin, who went by the online handle “MrZackMorris”; Thomas Cooperman, who goes by “ohheytommy”; Gary Deel, who goes by “Mystic Mac” or “notoriousalerts”; Mitchell Hennessey, who goes by “Hugh Henne”; Stefan Hrvatin, who goes by “LadeBackk”; and John Rybarcyzk, who goes by “The Stock Sniper” or “Ultra_Calls.”
Each of them have at least 100,000 Twitter followers, as well as significant followings on other platforms.
They did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The SEC also said criminal charges have been filed by the Justice Department's Fraud Section and the U.S. attorney’s office for Southern Texas.
Discord is a private chatroom and messaging platform that is popular with gaming influencers and, more recently, financial influencers. One Discord chat in particular, Atlas Trading, which as of Wednesday morning had more than 233,000 members, allegedly served as a primary forum for the scheme. According to the SEC, seven of the defendants promoted stocks to their hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers and in stock trading rooms on Discord since at least January 2020.
After purchasing the stocks and encouraging their followers to do the same, the defendants “regularly sold their shares without ever having disclosed their plans to dump the securities while they were promoting them,” the SEC said in a news release.
The SEC said in a complaint filed Tuesday that recordings of some of the defendants showed them discussing their alleged scheme over Discord voice chats, including one from March 1, 2021, between Knight and Cooperman.
“We’re robbing f------ idiots of their money,” Knight allegedly said.
The alleged form of fraud is commonly referred to as a “pump and dump” scheme, a phrase that was used in the grand jury indictment filed Dec. 7.
According to the SEC, the scheme occurred in three phases: The group would identify a stock and organize purchases at a lower price prior to the alleged manipulation. They would then promote the stock to their followers and inflate the share price, announcing price targets and teasing upcoming news about the company. They would then sell their shares into the demand generated by their hyping, creating a profit. To cover up their scheme, they would delete old tweets and Discord chats, then lie to their followers about why particular stock picks were followed by price declines, thus obscuring their roles in having generated losses for their followers, the SEC complaint alleged.
“None of the Primary Defendants disclosed that they were either planning to sell, or were actively selling, a Selected Stock while recommending that their followers buy it,” the SEC’s complaint stated. “Nor did any of the Primary Defendants disclose that they were coordinating with each other to manipulate the price and volume of trading in the stocks they were promoting.”
The SEC also alleged the group spread “false or misleading news” about the companies through their various social media accounts and on podcasts, and that on some occasions they lied about losing money to generate trust among their followers, “when in reality they had profited handsomely.”
“Indeed, in private chats and surreptitiously recorded conversations, they bragged and laughed about making profits at the expense of their followers,” the SEC stated.
The allegations come after online stock speculation has exploded in popularity in recent years thanks to a combination of low-cost trading apps and the emergence of so-called meme stocks, such as GameStop, AMC, and Bed Bath and Beyond, which saw price surges generated in part by speculation in online forums like Reddit — though notably, Reddit is not mentioned in the SEC complaint.
Unlike those big-name companies, the SEC charged the defendants with manipulating so-called small-cap firms — ones with much lower valuations, often no more than a few million dollars or less — and penny stocks. Those stocks are often ripe for manipulation because they receive less attention and have lower trading volumes.
CORRECTION (Dec. 14, 2022, 11:51 a.m. ET): The headline and text of a previous version of this article misstated how many people were charged with securities fraud. It is seven people, not eight.