If you’ve ever been tempted to buy into a hot investment opportunity linked with luxury travel, the Securities and Exchange Commission has a deal for you.
Check out the SEC’s Office of Investor Education and Advocacy’s mock initial coin offering (ICO) website that touts an all too good to be true investment opportunity. But please don’t expect the SEC to fly you anywhere exotic—because the offer isn’t real.
The SEC set up a website, HoweyCoins.com, that mimics a bogus coin offering to educate investors about what to look for before they invest in a scam. Anyone who clicks on “Buy Coins Now” will be led instead to investor education tools and tips from the SEC and other financial regulators.
“The rapid growth of the ‘ICO’ market, and its widespread promotion as a new investment opportunity, has provided fertile ground for bad actors to take advantage of our Main Street investors,”said SEC Chairman Jay Clayton. “We embrace new technologies, but we also want investors to see what fraud looks like, so we built this educational site with many of the classic warning signs of fraud. Distributed ledger technology can add efficiency to the capital raising process, but promoters and issuers need to make sure they follow the securities laws. I encourage investors to do their diligence and ask questions.” 
The website features several of the enticements that are common to fraudulent offerings, including a white paper with a complex yet vague explanation of the investment opportunity, promises of guaranteed returns, and a countdown clock that shows time is quickly running out on the deal of a lifetime.
“Fraudsters can quickly build an attractive website and load it up with convoluted jargon to lure investors into phony deals,” said Owen Donley, Chief Counsel of the SEC’s Office of Investor Education and Advocacy, who doubles as “Josh Hinze” on the HoweyCoins website. “But fraudulent sites also often have red flags that can be dead giveaways if you know what to look for.”
The website’s name, HoweyCoins, is a bit of an Easter egg—a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Howey test that’s used to determine whether a transaction is an investment contract.
In a landmark 1946 U.S. Supreme Court decision, SEC v. W.J. Howey Co., the Court held that a transaction is an investment contract, or security, if “a person invests his money in a common enterprise and is led to expect profits solely from the efforts of the promoter or a third party.”
The SEC was able to build the HoweyCoins website in-house in very little time, which demonstrates just how easy it is for someone to create a scam opportunity.
Remember, a free and simple way to protect your money is to research investments and the people who sell them. You can do all that and more on the SEC’s investor education website, Investor.gov.
Before you invest, Investor.gov.