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Shopping.com trading halted

The SEC temporarily suspends trading of the company's shares, citing possible "manipulative conduct," a charge that has been met with a tight-lipped response.

Citing potentially "manipulative conduct," the Securities and Exchange Commission today temporarily suspended over-the-counter trading of shares in electronic commerce company Shopping.com (IBUY).

The suspension is effective through April 6, and arises "from concerns that there was a lack of current and accurate information regarding the securities of Shopping.com, because of recent market activity in the stock that may have been the result of manipulative conduct," according to an SEC statement.

Shopping.com representatives declined to be interviewed. In a statement, however, Robert McNulty, the company's chief executive, said the company would cooperate fully with the SEC's investigation.

"Since our company's inception, we have accurately and completely filed all documents required and are and will remain in compliance with the Securities and Exchange Commission regulations," he said. "We fully expect our stock to begin trading again after the ten-day suspension."

Backed by Net entrepreneur Bill Gross's Idealab, Shopping.com has a short stock history that is typical of many Internet start-ups. The Corona Del Mar, California-based company went public last December priced at $9 per share, and since has seen its price climb to as high as $39 per share, and its market capitalization hit $129 million. The stock closed yesterday at 22-1/4.

Despite Shopping.com's performance, brokers can't seem to agree whether the stock is worth buying. Eleven days ago, brokerage house Chatfield Dean gave the stock a "sell" recommendation, citing the company's "slim margins and large expenses."

On the same day, however, another brokerage, Waldron & Company, announced an immediate "buy" recommendation on the stock, noting that Shopping.com "has exceeded many of our preliminary expectations by positioning itself as an emerging [electronic retailer] to both the individual consumer and commercial trade marketplace."

Four days later, Waldron--which is one of a dozen or so "market makers" that sell Shopping.com's stock--announced it would temporarily suspend sales. Waldron declined to comment on today's SEC move, but the firm told CNET's NEWS.COM two weeks ago that its decision to suspend sales was a "judgment call based on all relevant factors," such as price and volume. Waldron spokesman Tom Fehn added that the firm would consider reselling the stock when conditions appeared more favorable.

The company, which launched in July 1997, has been advertising nationwide, and pulled in 300,000 unique visitors to its site during the fourth quarter, Shopping.com's executive vice president Doug Hay said two weeks ago. Bill Gross, the company's backer, has helped launch other successful Internet companies, including CitySearch and eToys.com.

According to today's suspension order, the SEC "is of the opinion that the public interest and the protection of investors" required the move. Today's action marks the third temporary suspension issued during the last two weeks, a SEC spokesman said, adding that the SEC issues 30 to 40 such orders per year.