Cryptocurrency has mostly outgrown its wild west years, but it has not completely left them behind. Reuters reports that cryptocurrency issuers seeking positive press for their offerings in the hype-centric world of digital currencies have a vibrant ecosystem of options to choose from – for the right price.
The prevalence of pay-to-play-styled businesses with unregulated ethical standards has raised questions about the validity of various coin offerings while threatening to draw the ire of the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
Influencer marketing on the internet is hardly unique – a quick look at Instagram, YouTube, and other social media platforms means engaging with plentiful ads, covert or otherwise. But lack of disclosure to customers about promotional relationships may soon place digital currencies in the SEC’s crosshairs.
The SEC issued a warning in 2017 that “virtual coins or tokens may be securities and subject to the federal securities laws.” This was the regulator’s opening salvo; it was followed by a statement on their website that “…any celebrity or other individual who promotes a virtual token or coin that is a security must disclose the nature, scope, and amount of compensation received in exchange for the promotion.” Non-compliance means “a violation of anti-touting provisions of federal securities laws and may also be fraud.”
Transparency and disclosure among so-called ‘experts’ in the digital currency world are largely the exception, not the rule. One scandal covered in Reuters’ report involved supposedly unpaid (and background check-vetted) specialists on ICO listing and rating service ICObench, who were accused of accepting payment in exchange for positive ratings. The company, who strongly denies their ratings can be paid for, removed all ratings from the two experts in question after their connection to the controversy, but the episode did little to assuage fears about rating validity.
Cryptocurrency research firms exist to provide information to investors, but the reports they issue are often funded by the project being scrutinized. One company, Spero, does offer general disclosures, but they are often “not specific about whether a payment was made by the client whose project is being assessed, and if so, how much.”
There are additional ways to manufacture hype. ICO agencies exist to “offer crypto issuers active followers and posts on social media platforms such as Telegram, Reddit and Bitcointalk.” One, called TGE.company, offers comments written by “professional copywriters with extensive experience in ICO.” Agencies also pay writers “to publish stories mentioning their clients, or linking back to their clients’ websites,” with prices running the gamut from $100 to $10,000.
While the SEC has yet to clarify which virtual currencies it classifies as securities, it has “brought enforcement actions against a dozen or so companies connected to ICOs, some of which the agency has identified as unregistered securities offerings, and therefore subject to its regulation,” says Reuters. Outside promoters of cryptocurrencies have thus far escaped sanctions, but that may be changing in a climate where anyone can promote themselves as a crypto expert to sway investor opinion.
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