Here's yet another way cybercrime can pay -- at least for a while. Hackers allegedly broke into the computer networks of press release distribution companies such as PRNewswire, BusinessWire and Marketwired to access nonpublic information and use it to illegal advantage in their stock trading. According to a Securities and Exchange Commission complaint, the insider trading scheme allegedly netted more than $100 million in illicit profits and went on for five years.
"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," said SEC Chair Mary Jo White in a statement.
The SEC said Ukraine-based hackers Ivan Turchynov and Oleksandr Ieremenko hacked into the computer network of the newswires, stealing information from more than 100,000 press releases, many of which discussed corporate earnings. Turchynov and Iremenko worked "in concert" with a network of traders located in the U.S., Russia, Ukraine and France who paid them either a flat fee or a percentage of their illegal profits.
"The hacker defendants stole the press releases and passed them to the trader defendants in the window of time between when the press releases were uploaded to the newswire service's system and when the press releases were publicly issued," the SEC alleged in a 61-page complaint unsealed today in federal court in Newark, New Jersey. "As a result, the trader defendants had an unfair trading advantage over other market participants because they knew the content of the press releases before they were publicly announced."
Panera Bread sent an announcement about its third quarter earnings to its news distribution service in 2013. CBS News' Anna Werner reports that investigators say the hackers stole that information and then traded some 75-thousand shares of Panera stock before the news was released to the rest of the world -- making $900,000 in an hour and 15 minutes. Prosecutors say the hackers used similar inside information more than 800 times.
Thirty-two defendants were charged in the scheme, including three members of the Dubovy family. Arkadiy Dubovy, 50, of Alpharetta, Georgia (near Atlanta) allegedly earned more than $11 million in illegal profits through brokerage accounts that were either in his name or in businesses he controlled. His 28-year-old son Igor Dubovy assists him in running a brokerage business called Boni Inc. and had $250,000 in illicit gains through accounts he controlled.
Pavel Dubovy, 32 , a resident of Kiev, Ukraine, and Alpharetta, communicated with the hackers and told other defendants how to access the stolen press releases. The relationship between Pavel, Igor and Arkadiy Dubovy wasn't explained in the complaint, although according to the SEC, Pavel and Arkadiy Dubovy shared a credit card. Arkadiy and Pavel Dubovy, along with the alleged hackers Turchynov and Ieremenko, were charged in the case.
All told, the group's alleged illegal profit of $100 million is much larger than the $63.8 million Galleon Group hedge fund founder Raj Rajaratnam made through his insider trading activities -- and that got him an 11-year prison sentence. The case also underscores the changing nature of insider trading.
"Back in the day, you had to worry about the clerk in the mailroom intercepting information, a clerical type of person at a law firm that had access t0 material nonpublic information," Peter Grupe, director with risk management consultant Protiviti, who was involved in insider trading cases as an FBI special agent, told CBS MoneyWatch. Now, you have to worry about people anywhere in the world.