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3D printing stock scam, April Fools' joke, or both?

Sketchy-looking 3D printing "company" finds snag in fabric of reality, pulls.

On today of all days, sketchy-looking would-be 3D printing company Massive Dynamics puts out a comically vague press release. Is this yet another apparent attempt to pump its penny stock, or the April Fools' prank from a master troll? Maybe it's both.

Before you read any farther, I will direct you to this piece of excellent reporting by Rose Brooke and Dan O'Connor at the 3D printing blog Personalize.

You do yourself a disservice by not reading their article, but here's the gist: Rather than report blindly on yet another press release from an aspiring 3D printing company, Brooke and O'Connor actually looked into the details behind the announcement. What they found looks like a stock scam, designed specifically to capitalize on the hype surrounding 3D printing.

Massive Dynamics' corporate headquarters at 19925 Stevens Creek Boulevard in Cupertino, as depicted on its Web site.
Massive Dynamics' headquarters at 19925 Stevens Creek Boulevard in Cupertino, Calif., from its Web site. Massive Dynamics

Loosely described, the apparent plan behind Massive Dynamics goes something like this: set up a Web site, phone numbers, and a virtual office location, keep press release funnel BusinessWire supplied with press releases, offer shares to the public through the lightly regulated over-the-counter markets, in this case OTC Markets Group's OTCQB exchange.

(And yes, "Fringe" fans, the name Massive Dynamics does hew quite closely to that show's Massive Dynamic Corp. If you read Brooke and O'Connor's piece, you'll see that's not the only J.J Abrams reference in this story.)

The actual buildings at 19925 Stevens Creek Boulevard (home of Davinci Virtual Office Solutions), via Google Maps.
The actual 19925 Stevens Creek Boulevard (home of Davinci Virtual Office Solutions), via Google Maps. screenshot by Rich Brown

If Massive Dynamics' shenanigans do underlie a stock scam, it's unique mostly because of its apparent attempt to dupe investors excited by 3D printing technology. It's today's press release that begins to poke holes in your sanity.

"Massive Dynamics in Discussion to Use 3D Printing for Iconic Cartoon Character" blares the headline from the announcement, dutifully published by BusinessWire.

Which cartoon character, you ask? According to Massive Dynamics president Oscar Hines, "...this Famous Cartoon Character," Hines' caps. "Further details will be released as talks progress," says the report.

(Of course Hines, according to Personalize, might not even exist).

The rest of the announcement is sparse, with no mention of any company that might hold this character's license, nor information about the character's genre, the era in which he/she/it was created, or anything else even remotely corroborative.

Recommended reading.
Recommended reading. Wiley

On any other day, this would be just the latest in a string of dubious releases from Massive Dynamics. But that April 1 dateline at the top of the announcement is practically taunting you, daring you to fall for it.

In addition to taking the screenshots above, I made a few inquiries of my own last week after I saw the story on Personalize.

The phone number on the company's site does ring, but it always goes to voice mail.

I also asked Cornell University's Hod Lipson whether he'd heard of this company or of a J.J. Howard (Abrams fans, take note), an "Air Force-trained technologist" and team leader at purported 3D printer scanning vendor Real-View 3D (scammy-looking in its own right) that Massive Dynamics claims is from Rochester, N.Y.

Lipson, co-author of the excellent 3D printing primer "Fabricated," has been involved with 3D printing research at Cornell since the late 1980s. Given Cornell, in Ithaca, N.Y., is less than 2 hours away from Rochester, it seemed reasonable that Lipson would be at least have heard of a nearby expert in 3D scanning.

"These names do not ring a bell," Lipson told me over e-mail.

A further wrinkle, and perhaps indicative of the opportunity for bad actors inherent to the over-the-counter markets, a representative from OTC Markets told me the following when I asked about Massive Dynamics, which sells shares under the symbol MSSD.

Tough times for Massive Dynamics' shareholders. Screenshot by Rich Brown

"We have investigated the MSSD issue you described, including recent trading and price activity in the company's stock and the company's recent disclosure, and have determined that this activity doesn't fall within our policy for applying a Caveat Emptor designation for spam, questionable promotion, or public interest concerns."

A Caveat Emptor designation would not mean delisting, but OTC Markets would instead place a skull and crossbones icon next to the MSSD symbol. Pressing further, I asked OTC Markets whether it found anything specific to indicate that Massive Dynamics is a legitimate company, or whether the Personalize article was mistaken in its investigations.

"Because we are not a regulator, we are not in a position to conduct a substantive review of the MSSD claims to determine whether the company is legitimate," was the response. In a call to the Federal Security Exchange Commission, I was given a resounding "no comment," as is typical.

As of this writing, MSSD is trading for 48 cents per share, up 2 cents, or 4.35 percent on the day, but well under its $1.49 high from January 17. Still, that 48 cents is a nice 23 percent bump from its year-to-date low of 39 cents on March 25. The Personalize article ran on March 21.