Three individuals from India and Malaysia were charged today in a U.S. federal court with masterminding an international “hack, pump and dump” fraud scheme to hijack online brokerage accounts.
At least 60 customers and nine brokerage firms have been identified as victims, with one of the brokerage firms reporting more than $2 million in losses. Online brokerage firms affected include TDA AmeriTrade, E*Trade, Firstrade, ChoiceTrade, Options/Express, TradeKing and TerraNova.
According to the Department of Justice (DoJ), the case marks the first time that individuals have been arrested overseas in connection with an online brokerage intrusion scheme perpetrated in the United States.
Jaisankar Marimuthu, 32, a resident of Chennai, India, and Chockalingam Ramanathan, 33, a resident of Chennai, India, were each charged with one count of conspiracy, eight counts of computer fraud, six counts of wire fraud, two counts of securities fraud and six counts of aggravated identity theft.
The indictment also charges Thirugnanam Ramanathan, 34, a native of India and resident of Malaysia, with one count of conspiracy, two counts of computer fraud and two counts of aggravated identity theft.
“These new forms of high-tech identity and securities fraud pose serious risks to investors and brokerage firms across the globe,” Assistant Attorney General Alice S. Fisher said in a statement.
The indictments claim between July and November of last year, the defendants used their own online brokerage accounts to purchase shares of thinly traded stocks. Using stolen user names and passwords, they then hacked into online brokerage accounts of others or established new brokerage accounts using stolen identities.
The defendants used the accounts to make unauthorized purchases of the same stock they bought for their personal accounts to artificially inflate the share price. Once the stock price went up, the defendants sold the stock for a “substantial profit.”
“Hackers who prey on American investors — no matter what continent they’re operating from — are meeting their match with powerful adversaries in the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission,” Christopher Cox, chairman of the SEC, said in a statement. “We will go anywhere on earth to stop these thieves and hold them accountable.”
Marimuthu and Thirugnanam Ramanathan are already under arrest in Hong Kong, where they face similar stock fraud charges. The U.S. government will seek the extradition of the two. Chockalingam Ramanathan remains at large.
“Although the basic concept behind the fraud alleged in the indictment is simple, the methods employed were sophisticated,” U.S. Attorney for the District of Nebraska Joe W. Stecher said. “The investigation, therefore, required a savvy understanding of high-tech transactions and an ability to communicate and cooperate internationally.”
The conspiracy and computer fraud charges in the case each carry a maximum sentence of five years in prison. Wire fraud and securities fraud carry maximum sentences of 20 and 15 years, respectively. Each count of aggravated identity theft adds another two years.