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Regulators looking for ways to tackle increase of online securities fraud: report

TORONTO — The increase in online marketing and distribution of stocks and other securities is creating more potential for fraud and new challenges for regulators, says a new report.

The report released Monday by the International Organization of Securities Commissions, of which several Canadian provincial regulators are members, says the risks are especially high for leveraged securities products that aren’t traded on major exchanges. 

Firms selling these retail options, referred to as over-the-counter products, have been using social media, influencers, and email to promote the securities, while also using internet-based trading platforms to sell and distribute them, the report notes.

The report came on the same day that the Canadian Securities Administrators issued a new warning about fraudulent websites seeking investments in foreign exchange and crypto assets, often promoted through emails and social networks. 

Regulators are challenged in even detecting some of this activity because it’s often targeted to specific users, so isn’t necessarily publicly visible, the report notes. The sheer volume of information posted online is also a problem, as is the cross-border nature of many of the perpetrators.

Canadian regulators have had some success in tackling the challenge, including in Quebec and British Columbia using undercover operations to pose as investors and attend webinars covertly, while the Ontario Securities Commission is noted as having some success in working with internet service providers to take down fraudulent sites. 

Grant Vingoe, chief executive of the OSC, said in an interview that the regulator is increasing its monitoring and enforcement online and on social media, but often relies on investors coming forward to file complaints.

He said that while social media has provided opportunities to share all sorts of legitimate investor information, it also requires a fair degree of caution. 

“Social media has amplified and increased the volume of fraudulent solicitations by people who just want to part Canadians from their money, and in some cases are completely illegitimate."

In the case of influencers, Vingoe said the Ontario regulator is so far working more to inform users about disclosures and other requirements, but that enforcement is a possibility.

“There’s a fine line between freedom of speech, freedom of commercial speech, and making unlawful statements on social media, so most of our efforts have been to tell people what the standards are.”

The report out Monday proposes that regulators be more proactive with their technology-based detection abilities, potentially seek more enforcement powers to take action against websites, and to increase the international sharing of data.  

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan.17, 2022.

Ian Bickis, The Canadian Press