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In business, the term boiler room refers to an outbound call center selling questionable investments by telephone. It typically refers to a room where salesmen work using unfair, dishonest sales tactics, sometimes selling penny stocks, private placements or committing outright stock fraud. The term carries a negative connotation, and is often used to imply high-pressure sales tactics and, sometimes, poor working conditions.
The classic image of a boiler room is that it has an undisclosed relationship with the companies it promotes, or an undisclosed profit motive for promoting those companies. If the boiler room sells its clients on buying into their client's IPO, they are not supposed to sell the shares that the customer invested because there is no existing market for those shares and any early sales would create a large loss in the price of the stock.
Once the insider investors are in place, a boiler room promotes (via telephone calls to brokerage clients or spam email) these thinly traded stocks where there is no actual market. The brokers of the boiler room actually "create" a market by attracting buyers, whose demand for the stock drives up the price; this gives the owners of the company enough volume to sell their shares at a profit, a form of pump and dump operation where the original investors profit at the expense of the investors taken in by the boiler room operation.
The brokers sat "cheek by jowl" in a room the size of a basketball court. All of their desks were lined up side by side in rows. The firm held mandatory sales meetings every morning at 8:30 a.m. at which time sales techniques were demonstrated and scripts for the firm's "house stock" . . . were distributed. Brokers were expected to follow the scripts and only give customers the information they contained.
Some traits of a boiler room include presenting only good news about the stock to be sold and discouraging outside research by customers or brokers working there.
The term is likely to have originated from the cheap, hastily arranged office space used by such firms, often just a few desks in the basement or utility room of an existing office building.
In the early 1970s (and possibly earlier), boiler room was a term used by political parties for a room with many telephones used to call prospective voters. The name is inspired by an analogy between the many telephone lines leading out of the room and the many pipes leading out of a real boiler room.
Although many disappeared in the 1990s following the burst of the "dot-com bubble", many boiler rooms still operate across the world. Reductions in telecommunication costs mean that a company can viably operate in one country while calling prospective investors in another. The advantage of such an operation is that a company can operate without fear of prosecution from the investor's native legal system. For example, many boiler rooms contacting prospective investors in the UK operate from Spanish cities such as Barcelona and Valencia.
With the advent of the internet and the ability to create web sites easily without any regulatory involvement, as well as the ability to operate from other jurisdictions, boiler rooms have continued to operate into the 21st century. It is easy for scammers to set up a web site in one country, operate from another country and target victims in a third country, hiding their identity and making it difficult to trace them. Financial regulation varies significantly from country to country, and some countries deliberately promote low regulatory environments in order to attract financial business. This makes it easy for boiler rooms to use this to their advantage. Financial Regulatory Authorities in each country have significant difficulty enforcing rules on scammers in other countries. With low financial literacy by investors or victims (particularly in the increasingly complex ways that global financial markets operate), and without better coordination between financial regulators in different countries, boiler rooms continue to operate.
A fictional "boiler room" brokerage firm was dramatized in the 2000 film Boiler Room, and the play and film Glengarry Glen Ross show a similar boiler room operation selling real estate. The 2013 film The Wolf of Wall Street, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, also involves a boiler-room investment business. A 2010 episode of White Collar depicted fictional conman Neal Caffrey infiltrating a group of corrupt brokers peddling inflated penny stocks.