SEC cracking down on private Facebook stock trading

A man walks by a poster showing the Facebook thumbs up logo outside a store in Hong Kong on March 12, 2012. Who isn't getting a thumbs up? Traders who are allegedly ripping off investors on Facebook stock before it officially gets traded publicly.

David Brancaccio: It's like a persistent itch: a compulsion for Facebook stock. It's turned a fringe market for a stock that is not even traded publically yet into a black market bonanza. But now, a crackdown.

Joining me live is Gregory Warner. Good morning, Gregory.

Gregory Warner: Good morning, David.

Brancaccio: So what's happening with this?

Warner: So picture a guy in a trenchcoat walking up to you in a park and saying, "Hey, wanna buy some Facebook stock?" That's pretty much what the pre-IPO market looks like.

Now, of course, you or I can't buy this stock, David, but I called Bill Singer. He's a former regulator, now private lawyer. He says he regularly fields calls from clients getting phone calls from shadowy firms promising shares of Facebook but, oh yeah -- there are these hidden comissions, and the money has to be wired through Nigeria.

Bill Singer: It has become quite seedy, and some of the folks that have been soliciting and getting involved in this area are very reminiscent of the worst ilk that we once saw in the penny sector.

So yesterday, the SEC brought charges against two money managers who allegedly misled and overcharged investors. And maybe that's a sign that the sheriffs have arrived to the Wild West.

Brancaccio: But, you know, the "wild west" has always been part of the stock market, for better or worse. Why now the SEC?

Warner: Well, first off, the market for private stock is getting bigger. Once, it was limited to really wealthy investors and early employees. Now the bar is a little bit lower -- there are private exchanges, so the slightly less wealthy can get involved. Add that to the fervor for Facebook and you have a lot of people potentially getting ripped off. A more cynical explanation is that the SEC is trying to make up for missing. Madoff

Brancaccio: Gregory, thank you very much. Marketplace's Gregory Warner.

Warner: Thanks.

About the author

Gregory Warner is a senior reporter covering the economics and business of healthcare for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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