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SEC accuses Estonian firm of financial news hack

Two employees are charged with accessing press releases in advance from Business Wire to make stock trades.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has accused an Estonian financial firm and two of its employees of carrying out a fraudulent hacking scheme that netted them at least $7.8 million.

The SEC filed an "emergency federal court action" against Estonian financial services firm Lohmus Haavel & Viisemann and employees Oliver Peek, 24, and Kristjan Lepik, 28.

The agency accused the two of using a so-called spider program to steal information related to more than 360 embargoed press releases in advance of their official distribution date from news and PR Web site Business Wire.

A statement from the SEC claims the stolen information allowed the two to time their trades around the release of news involving mergers, earnings and regulatory action. Using U.S. accounts, the defendants allegedly bought stocks long or sold short.

Business Wire said that while all computer systems are vulnerable to hacking, no press releases were stolen but some screenshots were taken.

"No one gained access to our news release file prior to distribution to the media and investment community," Lorry Lokey, CEO of Business Wire, said in a statement. "Some of the SEC statements in its complaint have been misinterpreted."

The SEC's complaint states that in June 2004, Lohmus became a client of Business Wire, which gave it access to its secure client Web site, after which a spider program was allegedly used.

However, the SEC could be moving into a gray area and may have to prove whether hacking was involved in order to prosecute the company. A spider program does not circumnavigate access controls to a system but crawls around a site from link to link, reporting information back to its owner.

A New York court has issued a temporary restraining order to freeze the defendants' assets.

Peek is a citizen of Estonia currently residing in Tallinn. He is employed by Lohmus and works for its investment services team. Kristjan Lepik is also Estonian and lives in Tallinn. Lepik is a partner at Lohmus.

Lohmus, which also has offices in Latvia and Lithuania, did not respond to a request for comment.

Dan Ilett of reported from London.