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Congrats, you're a millionaire! April Fools! That'll be $819.99
April 5, 2009 9:56 AM   Subscribe

Who are the Fools here? "Many customers of Zecco Trading logged into their brokerage account yesterday to be greeted with a slightly higher buying power than before… on the order of 6 to 13 million dollars!" So what'd these customers do? They bought stocks. Oops. SEC may be getting involved.

The Consumerist: "When Zecco realized what was happening, they responded by panic-selling the purchased stocks at a loss and charging the balance to customers, along with a $19.99 broker-assisted trading fee. One poor schmo bought $1 million worth of shares that were later sold for less than the purchase price."
posted by waraw (41 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is the margin offered to the trader, not the balance of the account, right? So if you traded with that money would it be more akin to charging buck-wild with a credit card that you can't afford to pay back than outright stealing?

I'm not being a smart ass, I just don't quite understand.
posted by double block and bleed at 10:07 AM on April 5, 2009


Whoa! I wonder what the legality of this is, I can't imagine they can charge the loss to the customer. What sloppy programming, it should be fairly simple to write a check and balance for a margin account, it is not like this is rocket science. Really poor move on Zecco's part, they should have sold the stocks and just taken the loss or profit.

Also, not to be snobby, but $2k in equity? What's the normal net liquidating value for these online brokerage accounts? They must be making a killing in fees. I think you'd probably make more money playing blackjack at a casino than the market at $2k. I have friends who flip penny stocks with that kind of money, but that's just gambling. Anything less than $10k, I can't imagine how you'd come up ahead more than a couple hundred dollars a year, but to each his own.
posted by geoff. at 10:15 AM on April 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


This seems relatively similar to the situations in which the bank makes a clerical error in your favor. Invariably they discover the mistake and if you've already spent the extra money, you are responsible for paying it back. Buying shares with money you don't actually own is pretty stupid and people should definitely be aware of the risks.
posted by vuron at 10:16 AM on April 5, 2009


The Consumerist article implies this was a deliberate April Fool's joke. Please tell me it's not true.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 10:26 AM on April 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


But, with clerical errors at the bank it's unintentional. This was an intentional April Fools Joke. The people who bought share shouldn't be allowed to keep the profits, but they shouldn't have to pay for any loss, either. A reasonable person would expect that if they put an order and it went through that it was part of the joke.
posted by stavrogin at 10:27 AM on April 5, 2009


We have stocks!
posted by box at 10:27 AM on April 5, 2009 [8 favorites]


It didn't seem like the best and brightest were in some of those Zecco threads. As said, wouldn't you, as a thinking person, look at that made up number as something akin to the credit limit on a Visa card? If I woke up tomorrow and found that my limit was raised from $20K to $20M, I don't think I'd be running out to buy my own island as I'd recognize that the money would have to be paid back.

Still, idiot programming, agreed on that part, and, yes, Zecco should eat the losses, even if the customers were dumb.
posted by maxwelton at 10:27 AM on April 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


If we'd learned anything by now, gambling with borrowed money would be a capital crime.
posted by mullingitover at 10:27 AM on April 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


When Zecco realized what they had done -- bought a LOT of stock for their customers with money that didn't really exist ha-ha -- they panicked and sold it all. Much of it, at a loss. This loss is being charged to their customers.
posted by waraw at 10:30 AM on April 5, 2009


no, allowing people to gamble with borrowed money would be a capital crime.
posted by dunkadunc at 10:30 AM on April 5, 2009


Zecco should eat the losses, even if the customers were dumb.

Dear God is it ever the consumer/borrower's fault around here?
posted by SeizeTheDay at 10:31 AM on April 5, 2009 [5 favorites]


IN SOVIET RUSSIA YOU CRUSH ECONOMIC SYSTEM!
posted by blue_beetle at 10:32 AM on April 5, 2009 [4 favorites]


Dear God is it ever the consumer/borrower's fault around here?

As opposed to those that handed out tons of fake money and then let it be used as if it was real money?

Neither side here gets my sympathy - stupid companies and greedy people make for a bad combination.
posted by anti social order at 10:39 AM on April 5, 2009


In Soviet Russia, stocks own you?
posted by kldickson at 10:45 AM on April 5, 2009


In Soviet Russia

I will pay you to never, ever type that again on metafilter.com.
posted by sidereal at 10:55 AM on April 5, 2009 [27 favorites]


Also, not to be snobby, but $2k in equity? What's the normal net liquidating value for these online brokerage accounts? They must be making a killing in fees.

The deal with Zecco is that don't charge trading fees. That's right, zecco charges no fees at all. Obviously, this leads to the kind of awesome quality of service you see here.
posted by delmoi at 11:09 AM on April 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


Is this the fault of the customers or Zecco? I'd say it was the fault of Zecco. A margin account isn't like a credit card exactly. My understanding (and I could very well be wrong here) is that When your "ballance" goes negative you have to either pay the rest yourself or have your stocks sold, but you shouldn't get into a situation where you owe huge amounts of money. But ordinarily margin accounts only let you leverage 2:1 and these guys were leveraging something like 3000:1 (six million on two thousand). They would have hit margin calls immediately I think (but like I said, I'm not sure. In particular, if a stock drops to quickly for you to sell with a zero balance, I would image you owe the money)

Okay looking at Zecco's site it's $4.50 a trade plus 10 free trades a month. But the basic idea is a brokerage that's as cheap as possible. I've heard in the past they've had other problems, like withholding 100% of trade proceeds for taxes, thus locking up the money for a year. Now they've done this. The trades may be free, but it's like playing Russian roulette apparently.
posted by delmoi at 11:17 AM on April 5, 2009


Some of the Zecco users' explanations really highlight how stupid people can be: "I thought it was fantasy money!" Why on Christ's earth would you think that's the case, when it's in your regular account, where your regular, active account's buying power is displayed?

Further more, even if it WAS real, buying power is just the amount of credit Zecco is willing to extend to you—you're still responsible for the credit one way or another, no matter the amount, since it's a margin account. My first reaction if my brokerage told me I had $2M in buying power would be to say "oh, huh, I wonder why they upped that limit 6,000x it's regular levels...best not touch that." Not to try to buy whatever I could, for funsies, in my live account.

Now, Zecco traders aren't always the brightest bulbs in the box—their offering of free trades and easy setup make them a starting point for a lot of completely new traders.

But that's no excuse for not understanding how bank errors are NEVER really in your favor, and even still, this is the wrong way to react—anyone who legitimately believed this was an "April Fool's joke" needs to get slapped—financial institutions don't play AF jokes with customer balances or credit limits. At all. This was a huge system glitch.

That said, There are stories on the forums of customers who made large margin purchases and sold their positions with positive returns--but now have had their accounts liquidated and owe Zecco the entire amount of their margin purchase, with none of the profit taken into account. This is going to cause serious issues, because if the stocks were sold at a higher price than they were purchased at, even on "fake" margin, the customers made money. Similarly, they lost money if they sold at a loss—even if Zecco initiated the sale.

The blame is really on both sides of the aisle here; I don't know why "the system shouldn't let me be an idiot" is an excuse at all—again, if American Express told me my credit limit was now $20,000,000, I wouldn't go buy a fucking yacht. You know what? Because I'D STILL OWE THE FUCKING MONEY!

Zecco broke basic rules with regards to margin/buying power ratios, and worse, by automatically closing their customers positions and liquidating accounts, they've exposed themselves and their customers to serious issues that the SEC almost certainly will be getting involved in. I'd be looking over my agreements with Zecco if I was impacted by this, since this might very well require a lawyer. The problem with things involving the stock market is that trades can't simply be "undone"—not without a huge ripple effect and a massive amount of headaches for people, so we'll see how this pans out.

posted by disillusioned at 11:33 AM on April 5, 2009 [7 favorites]


True vitriol aimed at those who bought stocks using the funny money seems a little much, seeing as how the fake balances were a joke perpetrated by Zecco themselves. Had this happened to me, I could easily see myself going "Oh, ha-ha, let's see what happens if I spend it, maybe more funneh, lets buy a gazillion AAPL." Then it posts as a real trade. Then what?
posted by waraw at 11:37 AM on April 5, 2009


I wonder if it was sabotage, maybe a disgruntled (former?)employee playing an "April fools" joke of his own.
posted by delmoi at 11:38 AM on April 5, 2009


The problem with things involving the stock market is that trades can't simply be "undone"—not without a huge ripple effect and a massive amount of headaches for people, so we'll see how this pans out.

There was a glitch in the real market a couple months ago, when Google's share price dropped $200 accidentally. Someone who bought the stock then sold it had their sales turned into a short sale. Ironically their short sale would have made a ton of money if they'd kept the position open, Google's price ended up dropping to an even lower price "for real" later.
posted by delmoi at 11:43 AM on April 5, 2009


I will pay you to never, ever type that again on metafilter.com.


In Soviet Russia, kldickson pays you.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 11:43 AM on April 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


Waraw:
Nothing about the balance indicated it was a joke for one to "let's see what happens if I spend it" except for the sheer ridiculousness of the amount. Again, if AMEX suddenly increased your credit limit to $2M, would you just buy whatever you could and see what would happen? This is really no different, least of all because if the stock were to drop even a few cents and you had made an enormous purchase, you would be on the hook for an insane amount of money.

Delmoi:
There was also a huge issue when a rumor of United going bankrupt went out over the wire and caused them to lose a massive amount of market cap all at once, not at all rightfully. (Though that was news-based, and actual trades, whereas the Google glitch was a clearinghouse issue, I believe.) Undoing these things are a huge problem, though I seem to recall the SEC backing out all trades after a certain time of day, and resetting the share price to its value before the kerfuffle.
posted by disillusioned at 11:52 AM on April 5, 2009


Well, if some people made money with their trades, and Zecco kept the money, but then passed the losses back to the people who lost money with their trades, whatever you might think about the traders, Zecco is definitely trying to have it both ways. And should be penalized for doing so. Brutally.
posted by adipocere at 12:05 PM on April 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


Disillusioned: On April Fools Day, yes I would see what'd happen. If Zecco pulls a prank on me am I absolutely forbidden from seeing how far the prank could go?
posted by waraw at 12:26 PM on April 5, 2009


That $20 fee is insult on top of injury.
posted by boo_radley at 1:00 PM on April 5, 2009


adipocere nailed my main question; I'd like to know if Zecco pocketed any gains made from quickly undoing the sales facilitated by its glitch/joke. But, you know there will be lawsuits over this, and we really don't have enough info right now to know what really happened.

waraw's right, too: allowing people to make million-dollar trades on April Fool's day and then charging them when they take you up on the joke is despicable.
posted by mediareport at 1:06 PM on April 5, 2009


Ok, so if the traders made money on those trades before they were sold, did Zecco let their customers keep the windfall? I mean, it's only fair.
posted by Kickstart70 at 1:29 PM on April 5, 2009


This happened to me once on E*Trade, my portfolio showed a stock worth over a million dollars, it was like winning the lottery looking at my account balance page. I tried to sell (all the while suspecting this can't be real) and sure enough, it was just a glitch, the real selling price was considerably lower.
posted by stbalbach at 1:34 PM on April 5, 2009


Zecco broke basic rules with regards to margin/buying power ratios

Exactly. Regulation T. They can't just give a million dollars buying power to someone.
posted by smackfu at 1:36 PM on April 5, 2009


So is this what the Conficker worm was for?
posted by EatTheWeak at 1:56 PM on April 5, 2009


Re Soviet Russia:

No no no, this time it's:

In the U.S. the financial system gambles YOU!
posted by Laotic at 2:18 PM on April 5, 2009


disillusioned if American Express told me my credit limit was now $20,000,000, I wouldn't go buy a fucking yacht. You know what? Because I'D STILL OWE THE FUCKING MONEY!
But what if there was a decent chance you could sell that yacht the next day for $22,000,000, and walk away with the profit? And if you have little enough in the world, the chance of it dropping to $18,000,000 and leaving you with a $2,000,000 loss instead may not make all that much difference to you. The consequences of winning are, you get to live a substantially better life for the rest of it. The consequences of losing are, you have to declare personal bankruptcy and work your job (which you're probably doing anyway) for the next seven or eight years. You probably won't even lose any of your personal belongings, probably won't have to move house, etc. It's not a crazy bet to make.

Someone in Zecco (and I have no doubt that a frantic blame-flinging battle is going on over who that will be decided to be) made the decision to go ahead with this April Fools plan. it seems that they had the power within the company to actually make it happen; this in all likelihood makes the company responsible for the act. The most obvious consequence of this act, to most people, is that a customer would actually use the "April Fool money" to buy stock. Either this never occurred to them at all, or they sneeringly dismissed the idea. Bad mistake.

The polite thing to do, the right thing to do, and (likely) the most legally sound thing to do is apologize to all customers, let anyone who gained as a direct result of the stupidity, keep those gains, and refund in full anyone who lost as a direct result of the stupidity. (This is yet another reason to buy the $20,000,000 yacht, in the context.) And never do that again.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 2:40 PM on April 5, 2009


disillusioned: The blame is really on both sides of the aisle here; I don't know why "the system shouldn't let me be an idiot" is an excuse at all—again, if American Express told me my credit limit was now $20,000,000, I wouldn't go buy a fucking yacht. You know what? Because I'D STILL OWE THE FUCKING MONEY!

Yeah, I can see what you're saying, but how Zecco handled the situation afterwards is what really bothers me. It is as if Zecco repossessed all the Yachts their customers had bought, sold them at a poor price, and then charged their customers the difference - denying them the opportunity to try to negotiate with the dealer to take them back, or wait and see if the Yacht market turns up later and they can make money instead of lose it.

If Zecco had been like 'Yes, the credit was extended to you in error, but your purchase was real and you do in fact owe us real money because of it" it wouldn't have bothered me as much. Although, the SEC would probably still be pissed, and I'd still consider it grossly irresponsible even as a glitch (and as a joke, completely reprehensible to the point where I'd suggest the SEC actually shut them down entirely.)
posted by Mitrovarr at 5:22 PM on April 5, 2009


God, unwinding all of this is a giant legal mess. I guess there's two ways to do it, assume that the buyers were stealing or borrowing. The panic selling part is a total mess, legally. You'll have a lot of theories about what happened floating around.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:11 PM on April 5, 2009


So the source on this is forum posters and a screencap of a web page.

Gee, maybe Zecco had no problems at all and it's an April Fool's Day joke on... you.
posted by smackfu at 10:48 PM on April 5, 2009


Someone in Zecco (and I have no doubt that a frantic blame-flinging battle is going on over who that will be decided to be) made the decision to go ahead with this April Fools plan. it seems that they had the power within the company to actually make it happen; this in all likelihood makes the company responsible for the act.

My money is on it being the work of a low level tech employee, possibly a disgruntled ex-employee. If it was an april fools joke, perhaps they meant to target a specific friend's or coworker's account, and wrote/executed their scripts wrong.

I've worked in plenty of places where the admin passwords were not well protected secrets, and people who had no business having access to the production systems had access (or at least back doors they could go through). Zecco might not be able to pin it down to a specific individual, it really depends on how well they lock down their systems and monitor access.
posted by ShadowCrash at 7:07 AM on April 6, 2009


The sad thing is that depending on what they were trading, it's possible some of these people moved the markets themselves. Putting a market order out for $10 million worth of a stock that only trades 80,000 shares a day or has a market cap of 100 million is likely to send that stock up and result in them buying it for a higher price than it's worth. Similarly, Zecco forcing the sale in one large transaction is going to do the opposite, almost guaranteeing the account bought high and sold low.

Traders dealing with getting in and out of large positions have multiple strategies to avoid this, but I'm guessing someone with an account value of 2k has no idea about it.
posted by ShadowCrash at 7:13 AM on April 6, 2009


Consumerist reports today that the accidental increase was NOT an April Fools' joke. From the Zecco blog:

"On April 1, 2009, one of our vendors provided Zecco Trading with an incorrect data feed which caused some customers to see erroneously high buying power. This error was quickly corrected, but about 1% of our customers were impacted. All positions in excess of our customers’ true buying power have since been closed. Except in a very small number of egregious and fraudulent cases, customers will not be responsible for losses (or gains) incurred for trades in excess of their buying power.

Additionally, we want to make it clear that contrary to some reports, this was not in any way intentional and was not an April Fool's joke. We take the integrity of our customers’ accounts very seriously and we have taken measures to ensure this does not happen again. We sincerely apologize to our customers if this caused any confusion." [emphasis added]

Despite the bit about it being "quickly corrected" (some customers saw the balance remain for several hours), it appears Zecco upper management has stepped in and is trying to do the right thing in after a fuck-up, so good on them.
posted by waraw at 11:14 AM on April 6, 2009


customers will not be responsible for losses (or gains)

So who gets the gains?
posted by mediareport at 5:03 PM on April 6, 2009


Except in a very small number of egregious and fraudulent cases... um... so, except where customers posted gains or losses, customers will not be responsible for gains or losses? This is a bad line to read here.
posted by disillusioned at 4:47 PM on April 7, 2009


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