The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has charged 32 defendants with fraud in an international scheme that used stolen, yet-to-be-published press releases from hacked websites to conduct stock trades.
The SEC’s charges are on top of wire fraud conspiracy and other charges announced by the U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday. The nine DOJ defendants also face SEC charges. The other SEC defendants are eight people and 15 companies.
Indictments unsealed Tuesday in the district courts for New Jersey and Eastern New York accused the DOJ defendants of stealing approximately 150,000 confidential press releases from the servers of Marketwired, PR Newswire Association and Business Wire.
Two hackers in the DOJ case allegedly had network access to at least one of the newswire services during a five-year period ending this month, the agency said. Two of the newswires appear to have shut down the hacker access in 2013, the SEC said.
The nine defendants in the DOJ case made about US$30 million from stock trades using information from unpublished press releases, the agency said. But the SEC complaint said the entire criminal enterprise, with defendants in the U.S., Ukraine, Russia, Malta, Cyprus and France, made about $100 million from stock trades.
Three connected hedge funds, based in Cyprus, Russia and Malta, executed 256 stock trades during the scheme, making $28.8 million, the SEC alleged.
“This international scheme is unprecedented in terms of the scope of the hacking, the number of traders, the number of securities traded and profits generated,” SEC Chairwoman Mary Jo White said in a statement.
The traders sought to conceal their illicit activity by establishing multiple accounts in a variety of names, funneling money to the hackers as supposed payments for construction and building equipment, and trading in products such as contracts for difference (CFDs), the SEC alleged.
In some cases, the hackers and traders had a narrow window of time to steal and use the unpublished press releases in stock trades, according to the SEC.
In May 2013, for example, the defendants allegedly acted in a 36-minute period between a newswire’s receipt and release of an announcement that a company was lowering its earnings and revenue projections.
Ten minutes after the company sent the still-confidential release to the newswire, traders began selling short its stock and selling CFDs, making $511,000 in profits when the company’s stock price fell following the announcement.
The attackers appear to have used a combination of SQL injection attacks and phishing emails to breach the newswires’ networks, said Aleksandr Yampolskiy, co-founder and CEO of SecurityScorecard, a cloud-based security risk grading service. Yampolskiy’s observations are based on information in the SEC complaint and on his company’s outside risk assessments of the hacked websites.
As recently as last month, Marketwired employees were being sent phishing emails with links to malware, he said.
Yampolskiy suggested the breaches were a result of lax security at the newswire services. An outside scan of one of the services on Wednesday found multiple points of entry for a prospective attacker, he said.
The hackers “definitely knew what they were doing,” Yampolskiy said. But compromising the services’ networks “over multiple years seems ridiculously egregious to me. There’s no defense or excuse for not being able to detect it.”
PR Newswire, in a statement, said it takes security seriously. “As cybersecurity threats continue to evolve, so will our Information Security practices,” CEO Robert Gray said in a statement.
Marketwired also places a high priority on protecting customer information, said Jason Maloni, the company's spokesman.
“We found and fixed the issue at the heart of this matter and we are confident that Marketwired is protected by world-class security, monitoring and prevention practices,” he said by email.