THE "INFORMATION SUPERHIGHWAY" is a much discussed subject these days. For better or worse, Technology is quickly and constantly improving, enabling people to build or to destroy, to teach or to confuse, to abet or to exploit, in ways never known before. Even for those of us who may not have the slightest interest in computers and telecommunications, the quality of our lives continues to be, subtly or unsubtly, affected, controlled, changed by Technology.
The Motley Fool has discovered one way in which new technology is being abused for the profit of a few. It's a penny-stock pyramid scheme that may still be occurring in "cyberspace" even as you read this. For those encountering the term for the first time, "cyberspace" is the imaginary "location" provided by national information services like this one that offer public forums to anyone with a computer and a modem. The information service on which this particular profiteering has taken place is Prodigy, the high-profile joint venture between Sears and IBM serving more than a million users.
The Editors, having become aware of the penny-stock-price manipulation occurring on Prodigy, appealed to the service itself to examine it. Our admonitions fell on deaf ears. So we decided to fight it ourselves, and encouraged other users to join us. That meant posting a number of explanations of what the perpetrators were doing, why they shouldn't be doing it, and why they probably wouldn't be able to continue doing it for long.
That didn't work. Penny-stock investors dominate the Stocks area of Prodigy's Money Talk bulletin boards, and they buried every one of our messages under a heap of counterattacks. So what did we do next? We fought them the only way we know how, when all other options are exhausted. We tried to kill them with humor. We went undercover and concocted a practical joke.
It was our first annual April Fool.
The results appear below, describing the operators' technique, mentality, and approach, along with our lampooning of it. Although much of our exchange was intended to be lightly humorous, the results were not. Over our telephone line, we began to receive anonymous threats from Prodigy subscribers, letting us know that they knew where we were and were coming to get us. The closer we got to the heart of the operation, the more violent (and cowardly) these people became.
To our knowledge we are the first publication to bring this scheme to light, so we've made a special effort to provide thorough details. We also think it's an important issue. Goings-on in cyberspace are sometimes downplayed (wrongly, a Fool might tell you) because what goes on inside computers seems to some people mere make-believe. After all, when you "talk" to people over a modem, you're never seeing their faces--you don't know what they look like, you don't know where they come from, and you may never "see" them online again. Consequently, in the minds of some, what occurs online isn't "real," and the normal rules don't apply.
But even if the normal rules of making money call this technique into question, rules and laws are not our specialty. We're not quite aware, for example, to what extent the systematic and deliberate hyping of penny stocks is illegal. So we don't bat around terms like "legal" and "illegal" in our documentary, because that's not our area. Our goal is always to instruct and to amuse the reader, and the material here should do just that. Although "Buy Zeigletics!!!" would seem to document a wrong-headed way to play the market, we'll let the authorities sort it all out.
We can tell you one thing, though. If what we write about here is totally legal, then we just found a new way to invest. If the systematic hyping of penny stocks is fair play, you might just see The Motley Fool fully reinvesting its portfolio using certain previously undocumented methods.
NOTE: This article includes actual messages posted both to the Money Talk bulletin boards of Prodigy, and to our electronic mailbox. We have obscured the names of all writers, despite the message boards' status as public forums.
The quality of writing was quite low, in most cases, and has been edited for readability. In some cases the statements have been abridged, always with the intent of preserving their original meaning.