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Men charged with scheme of selling worthless stocks

NEW YORK — A crew of con men sold worthless penny stocks to people around the globe at pumped-up prices, then victimized the investors again by setting up a fake law firm that charged them to try to get their money back, federal authorities in New York said Tuesday.

The international scheme generated more than $140 million, making it one of the largest penny stock fraud schemes in history, US Attorney Loretta Lynch said at a news conference announcing an indictment charging nine defendants.

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FBI agents arrested six of the defendants Tuesday in New York, Arizona, New Jersey, Florida, and California. A seventh was being held in Canada, and two were at large.

The indictment alleges the defendants engaged in a massive ‘‘pump and dump’’ scheme — buying controlling interests in sketchy start-up companies, then artificially inflating their value by promoting them in fictitious e-mails, social media messages, and news releases. The fraudulent sales campaign generated more than $120 million in investments by tens of thousands of people in the United States and 34 other countries, including Jamaica, South Africa, Ireland, and China, authorities said.

Working out of boiler room phone centers in Canada, Thailand, and Britain, the defendants again victimized the investors by persuading them to pay $20 million in advance fees in return for helping them sell their securities or join lawsuits to reclaim their losses, court papers said. In some instances, the defendants pretended to be Internal Revenue Service employees who told victims they would have to pay a 30 percent tax before they could unload their penny stocks.

The defendants ‘‘picked [the investors’] pockets yet again as they promised to help them find a way out of their financial straits,’’ Lynch said.

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