FirstPlus Financial Group says it has a identified a person trading in its stock who has used Internet message boards to drive down the price.
The specialty finance company said Monday that it was "reviewing its legal remedies."
The company had said earlier in the month that it was putting itself up for sale. The asking price is rumored to be at least $35 a share.
But FirstPlus stock has nosedived to about $16 in recent weeks. The company says the investor's Internet messages are at least partly responsible.
FirstPlus is said to be close to a deal - and quickly losing leverage as the price falls.
Internet message boards, which allow anyone to anonymously post an opinion about a stock, have had increasing influence on the market. "Now everyone's an analyst," said one hedge fund manager.
FirstPlus said a continuing investigation had found the individual, who it said was disseminating false and misleading information.
Daniel Phillips, chief executive, declined to identify the person, who he said was found through a "quiet and intense" investigation.
Followers of FirstPlus' stock said the target of the company's investigation is someone who posts messages as "Mr. Pink"-a name lifted from the Quentin Tarantino movie "Reservoir Dogs." "Mr. Pink" uses the Yahoo message board and another Web site, Silicon Investors.
He or she is said to be a short-seller-a class of investor seeking to profit from declines in stock prices. Short-sellers have been targeting FirstPlus in recent months, and "Mr. Pink" has been recommending that investors short the stock. The postings have criticized FirstPlus with comments that range from analytical to downright silly.
Stock watchers who frequent Internet message boards say "Mr. Pink" does have some influence.
"He's really developed a cult following," said one investment banker. "He was shorting technology stocks, and then decided he liked this sector" as a shorting target.
Other observers, though, were baffled by FirstPlus' announcement, which they saw as a misguided attempt to blame someone for the falling stock price.
"It's a characteristic of this panicked market," said a bond trader who focuses on distressed companies. Specialty finance companies have been hit hard this year as investors shied away from the sector. Several have put themselves on the block in the hopes of attraction a buyer with deep pockets and access to capital.
Several analysts are strongly recommending FirstPlus stock, pointing to the likelihood of a sale and to FirstPlus' position as the leader in a fast-growing niche. Several expect the company to sell for $40 or more a share. Nonethless, the stock has continued to trade below $20.
"The market has it wrong, but it doesn't make a difference," said Reilly Tierney, analyst with Fox Pitt Kelton.
FirstPlus is unlikely to find any way to curtail negative comments about it, even anonymous ones, observers say.
"You're allowed to be wrong in your analysis," said the hedge fund manager. "I've seen cases where sell-side analysts are factually wrong" in reports they publish, and companies are reluctant to sue, he said.
The Securities and Exchange Commission has brought cases against people who used the Internet and other means to artificially inflate stock prices.
And an Ontario judge decided this year that several Internet providers would have to disclose the names and addresses of individuals who had posted negative messages about Philip Services Co., a scrap metal company.
Ultimately, analysts say, the best news that FirstPlus could announce would be that it has nailed down a buyer.