The SEC announced enforcement actions against 27 individuals and entities behind various alleged stock promotion schemes that left investors with the impression they were reading independent, unbiased analyses on investing websites while writers were being secretly compensated for touting company stocks.

The SEC filed fraud charges against three public companies and seven stock promotion or communications firms as well as two company CEOs, six individuals at the firms, and nine writers. Of those charged, 17 have agreed to settlements that include disgorgement or penalties ranging from approximately $2,200 to nearly $3 million based on frequency and severity of their actions. The SEC’s litigation continues against 10 others.

SEC investigations uncovered scenarios in which public companies hired promoters or communications firms to generate publicity for their stocks, and the firms subsequently hired writers to publish articles that did not publicly disclose the payments from the companies. The writers allegedly posted bullish articles about the companies on the internet under the guise of impartiality when in reality they were nothing more than paid advertisements. More than 250 articles specifically included false statements that the writers had not been compensated by the companies they were writing about, the SEC alleges.

According to the SEC’s orders as well as a pair of complaints filed in federal district court, deceptive measures were often used to hide the true sources of the articles from investors. For example, one writer wrote under his own name as well as at least nine pseudonyms, including a persona he invented who claimed to be “an analyst and fund manager with almost 20 years of investment experience.” One of the stock promotion firms went so far as to have some writers it hired sign non-disclosure agreements specifically preventing them from disclosing compensation they received.