Exposing a new front in cybercrime, U.S. authorities broke up an alleged insider trading ring that relied on computer hackers to pilfer corporate press announcements and then profited by trading on the sensitive information before it became public, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Officials have identified nine hackers and traders who are expected to be charged Tuesday by officials in Brooklyn, New York, and New Jersey. Five of the men were arrested by federal agents in morning raids Tuesday in Georgia and Pennsylvania.
The hackers, who are thought to be in Ukraine and possibly Russia, infiltrated the computer servers of PRNewswire Association LLC, Marketwired and Business Wire, a unit of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., according to a person familiar with the matter.
Over several years, they allegedly siphoned 150,000 press releases including corporate data on deals and earnings that could be used to anticipate stock market moves and make profitable trades. The hackers passed the information to their associates in the U.S., who allegedly used it to buy and sell shares of dozens of companies, including Panera Bread Co., Boeing Co., Hewlett-Packard Co., Caterpillar Inc. and Oracle Corp., through their retail brokerage accounts. Money was then shifted offshore through Estonian banks. The scheme netted more than $30 million, said the person.
It is the first major case of insider trading to cross into the cyber realm, exposing the vulnerabilities of financial markets in the digital age. Just as prosecutors deploy ever-more aggressive tactics like wiretaps to curb illegal trading, criminals have now leapt past them with a simple ruse: Steal information instead of persuading others to share it improperly. It’s also a great equalizer. No longstanding Wall Street connections are needed to glean advance information from companies.
Still, the breakthrough is a significant victory for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and prosecutors, who have been struggling to halt a burgeoning caseload of computer incursions that have publicly shaken Target Corp., Sony Corp. and JPMorgan Chase & Co., among other big companies.
The investigation began when prosecutors in Brooklyn and the FBI received a referral from the Securities and Exchange Commission about a pattern of suspicious trading by some of the defendants. The U.S. Secret Service and federal prosecutors in New Jersey later began a separate investigation, the person said, that focused on the foreign hackers.
For more than two years, investigators unraveled the scheme and the trades, which spanned a period of five years and continued until recently, say people familiar with the investigation. Federal agents alerted the three wire services of the computer breaches, and the firms did not disclose them publicly to allow the investigation to continue unimpeded, the person said.
PRNewswire didn’t immediately comment on the charges. The other newswires couldn’t be reached.
Federal charges including conspiracy to commit securities fraud and hacking are expected to be filed against the nine men in Brooklyn and New Jersey, the person said. The SEC is pursuing a parallel civil case against some of the individuals.
With nine defendants spanning two, possibly three, countries, it’s not yet clear who the mastermind was behind the plot to occupy the wire services’ computers and trade on the stolen information.
Only one professional trader was arrested, in Pennsylvania, and he is described as the linchpin of the markets strategy. He ran a mutual fund and worked on Wall Street before starting his own hedge fund. The rest of the group lacks similar financial credentials. They list themselves in myriad real estate and construction businesses.
The scarce credentials show that in the new world of insider trading anyone willing to pay for hackers’ services may be able to obtain information for illicit trading. Whatever the nine men’s connections, they are missing those common to many of the major cases brought by New York prosecutors in recent years, things like Ivy League schools and Wall Street employers and top consulting firms.