The emerging green-energy market has created a horde of fraudsters. So many, in fact, that late last year, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) warned about schemes that promise large gains from investments in companies that pitch alternative, renewable or waste-to-energy products. And in May of this year, the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) followed with its own alert about potential scams that exploit the Gulf oil spill and related cleanup efforts.

The green-energy get-rich-quick schemes are showing up in blog posts, e-mail, infomercials, Internet message boards, text messages, and Twitter. As with most investment scams, all promise unrealistic returns, such a 200 percent stock gain by a solar panel company, a one-in-a-million deal to get a “51 times” return on current stock value from a China wind-power enterprise, and a 500 percent one week stock gain by a hydrogen-based energy outfit.

Of course, the regulators are on the lookout for the scammers. In one recently filed case, the SEC charged that promoters of eco-friendly investment opportunities lured 300 investors into a $30 million Ponzi scheme, encouraging the participants to finance “green” initiatives of Mantria Corporation, including a purported “carbon negative” housing community in rural Tennessee and a “bio-char” charcoal substitute made from organic waste. Investors were promised returns ranging from 17 percent to “hundreds of percent” annually. But, according to the SEC’s complaint, Mantria did not generate any income from which such extraordinary returns could be paid.

As cautioned by the SEC, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico brought additional scam opportunities for cons promising financial gains from investments in companies that claim to be involved in the cleanup operations. In May and June 2010, the SEC suspended the trading in shares of ACT Clean Technologies Inc. of Huntington Beach, CA, and Green Energy Resources, Inc. of New York, NY, because, among other issues, questions arose about the accuracy and adequacy of the publicly disseminated information by the companies.

To dodge green-energy investment scams (and other frauds) investigate before investing! And:

  • Never rely solely on information contained in an unsolicited communication.
  • Find out who sent the investment recommendations; many companies and individuals that tout stocks are paid by the company being promoted.
  • Examine the fine print for any statements indicating payments in cash or in stock for issuing the report or message.
  • Find out where the stock trades. Most unsolicited recommendations involve stocks that do not meet the listing requirements of the major stock exchanges; they are usually quoted on the OTC Bulletin Board or in the Pink Sheets, which do not impose minimum qualitative standards. Many of the OTC or Pink Sheets stocks trade infrequently which can make shares difficult to sell. When these stocks do trade, they may fluctuate in price very rapidly.
  • Read the company’s SEC filings to verify information.
  • Exercise skepticism and be wary of any pitch that suggests immediate pay-offs, especially if the investment involves a start-up company or a product or service that is still in development.