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Seeking Alpha Applauds The SEC's Actions To Stomp Out Stock Promotion

Apr. 11, 2017 4:43 PM ET409 Comments
Eli Hoffmann profile picture
Eli Hoffmann


  • Yesterday the SEC unveiled a crackdown on alleged stock promotion schemes.
  • A number of authors are alleged to have been accepting payment from the companies they covered, despite disclosures to the contrary.
  • Many of these articles were published on SA between 2011 and 2014. We have cooperated with the SEC during every stage of their probe.
  • We applaud the SEC's efforts to put unethical stock promoters out of business. We note that an article published on Seeking Alpha was likely the trigger for the investigation.

Yesterday, the SEC uncorked a wide-reaching investigation into the actions of stock promoters who are alleged to have published bullish articles on specific stocks in exchange for payment from the companies they covered between 2011 and 2014. Many of the articles cited by the SEC were published on Seeking Alpha. Note that while some of the details are fresh, the story is not. It was first broken by Seeking Alpha back in 2014 (more below).

These bad actors chose to abuse Seeking Alpha because Seeking Alpha has a reputation and audience without comparison. They targeted Seeking Alpha because our content is differentiated, informed and highly regarded by institutional and individual investors alike.

For reference and transparency, here's a list of the alleged articles and authors (.pdf).

We became aware of this issue in March 2014 largely due to the spectacular detective work of SA author Richard Pearson (you can read Richard’s articles on the topic here and here).

I suspect that the SEC's investigation was largely prompted by Richard's work, as published on Seeking Alpha. We are proud of that.

At the time, we took affirmative steps to bolster our author integrity policies, including:

  1. Ticker monitoring and blacklisting: We proactively monitor websites that keep tabs on stocks that are being promoted. When an article on a stock that is suspected of promotion is submitted, the article must be reviewed by a managing editor. We have also blacklisted certain stocks from publication altogether in order not to fall prey to promotion.
  2. IP tracking: We deployed IP tracking in our content management system ("CMS"). We now cross-check article submissions against each other.
  3. ID verification: In cooperation with identity verification provider IDology, we deployed a system to validate contributors’ identities.
  4. Zero-tolerance policy: A contributor found to have cooperated with stock promoters is no longer allowed to publish, no exceptions. We also report this to the SEC.
  5. Leveraging our audience: We created an email hotline (integrity@seekingalpha.com) for any reader who suspects potential manipulation to email us confidentially. All reports of potential manipulation are investigated promptly.

I wrote about those steps and our ongoing commitment to integrity here.

With yesterday's investigation, the SEC documented the authors/articles that were allegedly complicit in stock promotion. We have removed these articles from Seeking Alpha; they have no place among the 75,000-plus articles we publish every year.

We constantly address and evolve our techniques and methodology to systematically identify this type of behavior. We will continue to collaborate with the SEC as part of this effort. At every juncture, we favor the transparency necessary to allow our readers to make informed decisions.

This is a warning shot to any would-be bad actors that would seek to capitalize on Seeking Alpha’s reputation and audience.

As Seeking Alpha's CEO and Editor-in-Chief, I remain committed to our community and readers, who have made us the single largest and most informed investor community in the world.

Crowd-sourced investment research is the future of investment research. A few bad actors are not going to force the genie back into the bottle and return investors to the more conflict-prone paradigm of Wall Street research.

This article was written by

Eli Hoffmann profile picture
Seeking Alpha mourns the loss of Eli Hoffmann, beloved manager, friend and guiding light.

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Comments (409)

Wow - I never realized how many possibilities there are to gain by corrupting the system. What a shame, but it's good to know people are watching and are aware.

I just have one question: How do I get a piece of this?
WTJ profile picture
16 Jun. 2017
No matter how many "likes" the posters applauding SA accommodation, contributors and editors accumulate, nor the innocence protested in the article,
those of us who've been reading since the days the author first took charge
know better.
Flying Tiger profile picture
Hello Eli,

It has been over 2 months since this article first appeared. There were, of course, a plethora of comments initially praising your working with the SEC to nail some of the fraudsters. Of course, as many of these commenters are also regular contributors to seeking alpha, and hope to either be paid per click by Seeking Alpha, or use Seeking Alpha to reach new potential subscribers (and get paid subscription fees), one has to wonder how objective this praise was. Do all these authors genuinely admire your stance, or do they feel that cooperating with federal investigations is the least that you could do without facing obstruction or other charges yourself? Do they feel pressured to voice some praise to make sure they can continue using your platform? Or did any of these writers voice praise partly to reassure the DIY investors (who one way or the other are paying their salaries) to try to make sure they don't lose confidence in the platform, and hurt the contributor's income stream?

It has been over two months. Originally, some people posted things that could be done to maybe help reduce the use of the platform for pump and dump (and/ or short and distort) artists. My understanding was that you were beginning to evaluate ideas, and would make decisions about what policy changes to implement - but then we haven't heard any results of such evaluations or any policy changes. I do hope you weren't planning on just waiting out the publicity the recent arrests brought, waiting for the spotlight to fade a little, and your readers / stakeholders forgetting about the issue so you didn't have to make any changes whatsoever? But with no new news on the issue, that is what I and probably many others are beginning to suspect or at least wonder about. How about a substantial update? Don't you want to inform the same community that has expressed an interest in the topic whether you have come up with new policy enhancements in the last two months, or did you decide that your policies were already optimal and couldn't be improved (or that you didn't want to change them)?

Again, it has been two months - I think you have had time to consider the suggestions, plus any ideas your own organization has come up with. Please update the group with the results of these deliberations, or at least be forthright enough to announce that you have no intention of making any change to your policies.
Eli Hoffmann profile picture
Hi Bill,

You may have more specific questions, but to reply to your general question - off the top of my head - one outcome of this article and the feedback to it is that I have asked our editorial team to review our policy on publishing short ideas and amend it, if necessary, to ensure it is as rigorous as our policy on publishing long ideas.

There are many times that SA authors have played a role in uncovering corporate governance issues. At the same time, shorts need to be held to the same standards as longs.
Scrying Biotech profile picture
Hey! That would be a significant step in the right direction if adhered to.
Some actions have been taken.
for instance a couple of misleading articles has been suddenly deleted
(but the usual harm to the readers/unsuspecting investors has been already caused, of course)


Eli--]Great and interesting article.
AgileDave profile picture
No one has a right to know the truth. We all have to work to find it. Some are better than others at digging it up. Complaining about not finding it never helps.
Scrying Biotech profile picture
You're the new Mark Twain man.
James Hickman profile picture
All research should be judged on its merits. If a shill publishes shoddy research that affects the stock price owing to significant ownership among low-information traders, that creates an increasingly rare arbitrage opportunity in the market. Any price dislocation based on a false narrative, whether fraudulent or simply wrong, will, by definition, be temporary.

As for the fraudsters using SA and whatever other outlets allowing them to publish manipulative content, that will remain an ongoing battle, and it is a big challenge in the age of the internet. I would love to see people like that going to jail, but know at least one, by name, who continues to do his thing on the net.

Finally, Wall Street has a structural long bias, largely driven by the reality that the the market goes up 2/3 of the time, and has a long-term upward trajectory. But variable compensation plans and the relative performance standard foisted on investors promotes the long bias, index clinging, and relatively few resources dedicated to loss avoidance. As long as an analyst or PM goes off the cliff en mass with all their competitors, they all claim "no one saw this coming" and live to fight another day. But actually putting capital at risk on the belief that a stock, sector or index is poised for significant declines, puts one's career at risk if not correct in a fairly efficient time frame. The idea being pushed on this comment stream that short sellers are somehow more likely to be manipulators than long advocates is not only untrue, but the opposite argument has more merit.
Please try to get the argument right if you are going to comment on it.
Nobody argued short sellers (or articles) are bad or were more likely to be manipulators. The probability of short manipulation was never mentioned.
What was argued is that short manipulation, when it occurs, is very easy to do - and still stay legal while you do it.
"I believe there is a wolf behind you" has a different effect on the human brain than "I believe their is a chocolate cake behind you". It just does.

SA has small/mid cap stocks that have had 35 short articles over a span of 2 years. And in all those 35 articles that "saw a wolf", not a single wolf has yet to appear. When a single author yells wolf 13 times in a single year on the same stock - and there is never a wolf. That does not present an investment opportunity. It does not present a market disequilibrium for my benefit. It just turns my investment decision into guessing when he will stop yelling - or people will stop listening. And that is not a market - that is just roulette. Anyone providing them with the bullhorn to continually yell wolf - is complicit. Whether they like it or not.
James Hickman profile picture
This string is heavily weighted toward complaining about short side manipulation when long side manipulation is far more pervasive. I made the point that short selling is much riskier (and also more expensive). I believe my comment was very much on point.

"It just does" is not a compelling argument. You provide no data that it's easier to manipulate on the short side than on the long. It is a given that parroting the positive narrative already discounted in a stock will have less impact than contradicting the consensus. The latter is much more likely to constitute "new information" than the former. But again, the merit of the argument is key. Shorts almost always contradict the consensus and therefore should tend to have more initial impact.

"It does not present a market disequilibrium for my benefit. It just turns my investment decision into guessing when he will stop yelling - or people will stop listening. And that is not a market - that is just roulette. Anyone providing them with the bullhorn to continually yell wolf - is complicit. Whether they like it or not."

Actually, it DOES present a market disequilibrium. If ongoing commentary continues to impact the stock, that usually means the commentary has merit - e.g., new facts supporting the thesis, whether long or short. You must really believe teh market is inefficient if you think shoddy argument simply repeated over and over can sustainably affect the stock price. To the contrary, such a voice gets ignored. If you are aware of any research to the contrary, please share it. Otherwise, put or keep your money in the places where you have conviction, and take advantage of false price action based on BS. Price dislocations are rare, alpha generation is usually more about luck than skill - because we are all competing against so much skilled competition. So getting an artificial hit or boost to a stock when you know better is a huge and rare arb opportunity. Why on earth would you complain about it?
Office Rat profile picture
"But actually putting capital at risk on the belief that a stock, sector or index is poised for significant declines, puts one's career at risk if not correct in a fairly efficient time frame." That may be true, James, if the author uses his/her actual name. Pseudonyms can be easily changed.
Jbgoose profile picture
You both have a point above (Boston & Long) but if you read the full reporting on SEC the list of financial sites this occurred on was - about all of them. It's a reminder of how the net has become the fabric of our modern day lives and I have a feeling people forgot to 'suspect' about anything online. Which is why the opportunity to tweak this (or any) financial website model towards being 'better' or dare I say 'Providing Full Integrity' ... is enormous. And costs more... Yet with millions of daily readers the payoff is also enormous if done well. Too many sites just pick up wire headlines and recycle them. And that happens everywhere these days. Good posts though - how many feel.
What is SA position on the use of its website to manipulate prices down. Because of human nature, it is actually much easier to manipulate group opinion down than up. Animals, have evolved to be risk adverse. Yelling "boo" about a stock is almost guaranteed to send it down if the market cap is small enough (under 2 billion). Yell "buy" takes a lot more work. Even some of the SA editor pieces (on BOFI for example) seem to have been written directly by shorts and emailed to the editor to post. The short manipulators may be far more knowledgeable about how to walk the line so that they don't get caught by SA or the SEC. But that hardly means the behavior does not occur. If greater than 50% of you articles happen on options expiration day (or the day before), maybe SA should be looking at you.
Scrying Biotech profile picture
LongDistance, your point about the ease of manipulating stocks down is well taken.
SA Editor Daniel Shvartsman profile picture
longdistance12 and BostonRedSox67, we do review short ideas that allege company wrongdoing more closely than normal articles, due to the attention they get. We focus on making sure the article adds new perspective to the story and supports its claims, among other things.

We like having good short-biased research the same way we like having good long-biased research, and we want to be careful about holding short ideas to a double standard, but do recognize that stronger claims require stronger support.
It is a tricky job. I don't have the answers and I appreciate your dilemma. I want short articles too. But I think after the 12th short article on the same company, when 8 of the previous ones were timed to pre-market short attacks on the price - that you might want to really consider what is happening to your site. I also think your editors (Stephen Alpher comes to mind) should make at least an attempt to look unbiased. Your editors directly reflect on your business. I am really not complaining. You are new, you are learning. I really am just trying to give you suggestions about what to look for. The fact is, your site, is ideal cover, for anonymous short manipulators.
Almost any idiot can spot a pump. They don't seem the big problem (to me).
But avoiding the stampede that results from a short attack that is launched from your web site - is impossible. An investor is dead before the market even opens. No amount of DD stops one getting trampled by a spooked herd. And the shorts know this fact of human nature - and are using your site to exploit it.
BostonRedSox67 profile picture
Mr Hoffman, having had a chance to reflect on your comments....

You are a business owner. It would be simple-minded for me to expect you to do anything that would make you un profitable.

We call SA Shorting Alpha, as in the 2 years I have been here, I have seen time after time a freshly minted newly named no-credentialed writer, like the Orange Peel Investment gaffers,come onto SA and write very thinly veiled attack pieces, that were issued in concert with shorting efforts that were very effective.

If you were to truly eliminate the Paid bashers, who are part and parcel of the shorting Cabals, I do think you would lose quite bit of money, and therefore, you will not do it.

I woud expect a retort that would say Boston, name these people, as how can I respond to your assertions without specific names, but the thing of it is, as a smart business man, Im quite sure I am not telling you anything, you are not already aware of, and the purpose of this article by you, is to try to put on the right public face, to assay and evaluate how much damage has been done, and how to stop the bleeding.
BostonRedSox67 profile picture
sorry after reading Orange Peel Investments et al slam AVXL it is clear you still have bad actors
Scrying Biotech profile picture
Big Papi! What's up? In the words of the great Steve Grant...

in this game of chess see there's rules
look at the board see the chess pieces move?
before they figure out what chess piece they use
you gotta figure out what chess piece are you
so don't be fooled


Here's a way to assess the value of the your opponents game...


Always be well...

WTJ profile picture
15 Apr. 2017
How about an author who's articles (13 0f them)
do nothing but push a short position on one micro-cap? and NO OTHERS?

An author who was directed to refund sales commissions to Connecticut Investors following allegations of Unregistered Activity and through a consent order?

Shouldn't THAT be disclosed?
8566031 profile picture
If the doggone ads with long scripts were fixed, I would comment. BIG PROBLEM.
Michael Bryant profile picture
I noticed that the problem is not all ads, but more video ads and those with complex JAVA script. A year or two ago, there was not any problem. Those video ads and those with complex JAVA script 1) take up a lot of memory and 2) make the page reprocess every 30 seconds or so. If I am writing a stocktalk, the post is erased when the page reprocesses. So I write what I want to say on Facebook or Microsoft Word and then paste it onto my stocktalks and submit. Advertisers should have noticed that not everybody likes to watch commercials on TV. The video ads will not make me want to buy the product any more than a static ad. Facebook and Google have a good algorithm. They show static ads for the products I like, and yes, I have sometimes clicked on them. That said, the more ads and use of video ads are not necessarily better. As for me, video ads just annoy me, and I ignore them.
Darp Research profile picture
Yes one of the stocks that screens the highest for value (in China) does not have a working website, yet claims to have tens of millions in sales. They even gave CC in which they said in a few weeks they would get their website to work. Did not touch it with 10' pole. It takes $1000 and 2 days to have a website max.

Ah see replied to your post after the one thought had. If this reply makes no sense see Michael's post higher up about scam stocks.
Eli Hoffmann profile picture

We're working on more stringent policies. It's an upstream swim. HTML5 has not made things better.
Jbgoose profile picture
Some make it out to be like everyone is a billion dollar market swinging player. There are many grad students writing for class on the platform it appears, as well. Which is a good educational experience for them... per example. Is that not allowed? Basically, If one is paid to write about a firm, for the firm or someone else making money one way or another, based on their writing, then they should disclose it. Period.
Retired Securities Attorney profile picture
You commenters are not making practical comments. Seeking Alpha is a business and its revenues must exceed its costs if it is to stay in business. Most of you are making suggestions which raise costs without any increase in revenue.

How many of you would be willing to pay for what implementing your suggestions would cost?

I'll now wait for you to tell me they wouldn't cost anything.
Real-Time Retired Guy profile picture

Considering that I have owned and operated a small business since 1976, I understand about profit margins etc.

I think one problem stems from the fact that over the years SA has become an inadvertent promoter of subscription-based investment services. Now, almost every author is an investment adviser.

Both the Federal (SEC) and State governments require investment advisers to register in order to sell their services. At the State level, there are minimum criteria for mandatory registration. I would be willing to bet that many of the subscription services offered on SA are not properly registered. Perhaps now that the SEC has become alerted to problems with some SA authors, they will begin a program of checking for proper registrations - likewise for the States.

SA could go a long way towards cleaning up some of the mess by requiring those offering subscription services that exceed minimum registration criteria to provide proof prior to allowing them to sell their services.

Any way you look at it, there are far too many SA authors whom are not remotely qualified to recommend buying/selling stocks, let alone be paid for their services.
Suggestion: If an article is about a topic that cannot possibly be exploited by a 100% anonymous author (or others) for personal gain, SA should allow it to be published on the main part of the website. Seeking Alpha currently requires that contributors provide an identity (internally) to SA even to publish articles on topics that have no possibility of stock manipulation or corruption. For example, I've anonymously written a few Blog Posts that are critical of DGI dogma with no reference to individual stocks. (There's no way for me or anyone else to exploit the Posts for personal gain.) Yet such such articles are sequestered in Instablog obscurity under Profile > Blog Posts. Dissenting articles that are 100% anonymous (even to Seeking Alpha administrators) might help novice investors avoid subsequently regretful decisions inspired by a social media investing bandwagon effect led by non-professional, micro-celebrity bloggers. As a bonus, SA would have much more engagement and page clicks.

For those who think that anonymity is bad, consider the case of the Los Angeles political artist who is known publicly only by the pseudonym "Sabo". If he were required to provide his identity to display his art, he might not do so. He maintains anonymity because he doesn't want to suffer discrimination, abuse, and even personal danger by expressing unpopular views in an era of knee-jerk violent retribution for exercising free speech. His anonymity allows him more freedom of expression, which helps keeps the world a bit more honest.
Long Player profile picture
You can publish under a pseudonym now, that should be anonymous enough. Only SA knows your identity then.
LOL. Come on, Eli. You've been wise to this for a long time, And it's probably still going on. How can we trust a writer simply on the basis of clicking 1 of 2 options?
I've read a few of Eli's comments and he doesn't seem to grasp the gravity of defending "Fake News", regardless of how and where it's used, and the impact it can have on a site like this. Disappointing. Now I wonder if the "Editors Picks" are nothing more than authors payments.
Exactly who and how are Editors Picks selected and is their any compensation for that pick?
Michael Bryant profile picture
As for the minimum market cap, does Seeking Alpha publish articles for stocks under $1?

Glad the SEC is cracking down on unethical stock promotion.
Darp Research profile picture
Michael, whereas here is terrible promotion out there, both mkt cap and stock price do not mean a scam. The financials are what count and most are incapable of understanding them. I have made more money off of sub 0.50 stocks that anything else. GTN went to over $18 a share and over $1 billion market cap after I bot it for .17 a share (100 bagger, except I sold in $12s about 60 bagger for me). Claude Resources went to 3.00ish after I bot it for .11, a 27 bagger. In the last 6 months or so bot CET.to in .30s and it went to 1.20.

Have BRY.to now in .40s and think it will go over $1.

I have never made a killing on a stock over $10. It happens, I was not in Apple and it did make a killing for many, ah just remembered it was $1 a share went it took off. But one of the worst mistakes people make is thinking the price of the stock means something, it does not. Companies can and do increase or decrease the share price with splits up or down 10 times. It is the market cap versus the value, the mkt cap price does count only in relation to the value.

I told some people about Claude before it 27 bagged, some made a fortune off of it, others said a company under $1 has to be no good and are kicking themselves now. There is a nano cap fund out there, Gate City and it has excellent record year after year with volatility so low it baffles me, I get more movement in a week than it gets in month or more.

I have bot a stocks with $300k mkt cap that was profitable and went up, and there are many scam stocks out there with market caps over $100 million that are worthless. Sun Edison had multi billion market cap and was worthless when it had billions of mkt cap and ended up bankrupt.

This all meant in a friendly manner. No offense meant at all. Just attacking the premise that low priced stocks are bad investments. The opposite is true, studies show value microcaps outperform the market by a lot.
AgileDave profile picture
How many penny stocks succeed versus how many fail? Despite a few spectacular successes, it's generally a poor risk.
Darp Research profile picture
Dave it is 100% about which penny stocks and which mega caps like Sun Edison. The biggest corporation on earth not that long ago was GM, and it went bankrupt. A top 10 mkt cap, Enron was a scam and went bankrupt. Of the top 100 mega caps 100 years ago only GE and a handful others are still in business.

Most penny stocks are not only poor investments they are scams, never buy stock in a company that is not "fully reporting". Do not buy money losing stocks unless you are sure they will become profitable.

For some reason people love investing in and fantasizing about money losing scams and turn their noses up towards profitable companies.

I not only invest in nanocaps (sub $50 million mkt cap) also invest in sub penny stocks, stocks under 1 penny. What is the success rate? Maybe 75% in terms of profits and none went bankrupt in last 5 years or so. I invest in about 50-75 stocks at a time, but most are not sub penny, maybe 2-5% are.

In past had IVFH when it was under 1 cent made about a triple to quad, it was profitable and fully reporting. They did a 50 for 1 Rsplit, I got out about 1.50 is about .60 now, got back in at .48.

I have BLGA now, got in a .011, its bouncing between that and .017.

Have BWMG, in at .005, about .017 now

Can not recall a sub penny stock that has ever gone bankrupt on me. Most of my stocks are $.25 to $10, and I have some biggies like ABX and APA (APA is one of my worst performers now).

Four that can think of BKing in last 10 years: 2 were Chinese cooked book stocks (I never buy China stock now) over $1, a .10 to .50 stock that had partner problems and Allied Nevada a NYSE gold miner that went bust in gold drop, that was not a nano cap.

My returns on 3 year CAGR (hedge fund metric) was about 30% in 2014 and 2015 which is top 1 percentile compared to hedge funds according to Barron's. In 2016 did much better than that and had a higher CAGR 3 year and 5 year than any hedge fund know of. It did not feel that smooth at all, am shocked at how high the #s are and not sure at all can reproduce them.

If someone can not value a stock they are just gambling, whether it is Apple or IVFH. Many people pretend they understand stocks and do not. For the vast majority if they would throw out "concept" stocks like solar and marijuana and just buy stocks they like that are also less than 6 EV/EBITDA they would be way ahead.

And BTW EV/EBITDA is flawed because negative EV and negative EBITDA make it work backwards. Unclestock.com is the screener I use and it has a "Allen EV/EBITDA" that corrects that problem and it works. One of their publically availible screen gets over 50% CAGR using Allen EV/EBITDA in India and another is over 30% CAGR using it in USA (over last 6 years backtested). Its real simple a 10 Allen EV/EBITDA is yielding about 10% on your investment per year, a 3 Allen EV/EBITDA is yielding about 33% per year. Free Cash Flow Yield is a good one too, it puts the amount into %, 18% FCF Yield is 18% per year. I like Allen EV/EBITDA because it factors in debt, which FCF Yield does not.

John Templeton started his billionaire fortune by buying every penny stock on NYSE in 1946, no individual research just any stock that was a penny stock (<$1). I did similar in 2001 after the crash bot GLW and other tech stocks at $1, it worked.

In the early 1990s, Eugene Fama at the University of Chicago, and Ken French, then at Chicago—and now at Dartmouth College—provided further insight into the large versus small-cap performance discrepancy. They verified the finding that small cap outperforms large cap over long periods of time. But they combined this with another, which is that value typically outperforms growth over long periods of time. http://bit.ly/2oegZzB

WTJ profile picture
13 Apr. 2017
I agree with much of what you posted,
but I've also noted that it's relatively easy to spot the baloney,
if you've been using SA for several years.

It doesn't seem to matter if the malfeasant is promoting a long position OR A SHORT,
these clowns can't resist overkill.
If an investor relies on 1 source, (website or author) to make an order,
shame on him.
DD is ALWAYS a requirement.

However, it's a real PITA to wade through their nonsense until the awareness bell rings.
That's where SA COULD save us a lot of time!

How about it, Eli?
I'm sure that you could do a bit better.

Requiring disclosure AT THE BEGINNING of the article would be one simple aid
and no doubt that your brain trust could come up with a few more
that wouldn't place undo burden on an author.
This is not nearly enough effort to stomp out stock promotions. I still see stock promotion daily whether it is in the articles or not. People getting paid to promote stocks needs to reveal this fact unless they are intent on misleading people.
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