Pretenders and Ghosts: Stealth promotion network exploits financial sites to tout stocks

By Chris Carey

Kevin O’Connor, Jim McNair and Russell Carrollo contributed to this report

 

Meet George Ronan.  Again and again and again.

The George Ronan who talked up a succession of small public companies at SeekingAlpha.com described himself as a university lecturer in the United Kingdom with an interest in technology stocks.

George Ronan I

The George Ronan whose articles appear on MarketExclusive.com – as well as Gurufocus.com — is billed as an author, journalist and public speaker who focuses mainly on health care stocks.

George Ronan II

A third George Ronan, with no bio but a decidedly different headshot, was briefly among the contributors to Benzinga.com.

George Ronan IIIAll three are fictitious. A Sharesleuth investigation found that they are part of a small army of writers, both real and imaginary, who have systematically posted hundreds of bullish analysis pieces about the same small companies across numerous investment sites.

Just as certain individuals and organizations circulated false or misleading political stories in an effort to sway the 2016 presidential election, internet-savvy promoters are using fake writers, planted articles and even illusory “news” sites to surreptitiously tout stocks. The purported analysis pieces by the multiple George Ronans are a prime example. Sharesleuth turned up more than 140 articles with that byline, on seven different sites.

Most of the original Ronan’s 11 articles at Seeking Alpha called attention to companies that were created or bankrolled by Barry C. Honig, a South Florida financier who figures into at least two Securities and Exchange Commission investigations. So did six of the seven Ronan articles on four other sites, including Investing.com and Trefis.com.

RONAN AS ROADMAP

Using the Ronan stories as markers, we found more than 60 other writers who have systematically promoted companies connected to Honig and his associates, including longtime business partner Michael H. Brauser and billionaire entrepreneur Dr. Phillip Frost, chairman and chief executive of Opko Health Inc. (Nasdaq: OPK).

Sharesleuth determined that the majority of those writers also were fake — part of an elaborate, long-running effort to spark interest in obscure public companies by creating bullish stories that were posted and reposted across the internet.

The stealth promotion network includes a handful of real people who have touted the same stocks with such regularity that it is impossible to view their posts as a coincidence. All told, we turned up nearly 600 bullish articles about Honig-related companies that fit the pattern of stealth promotional pieces.

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