Teen charged in cyber stock scam
Federal officials filed securities fraud and computer crime complaints Thursday against a Pennsylvania teenager who allegedly used a Trojan horse and someone else's online brokerage account to sell thousands of worthless stock options to an unwilling buyer.
Van T. Dinh, 19, is the first to be charged by the Securities and Exchange Commission with a fraud involving both computer hacking and identity theft, according to the SEC.
As laid out in the complaints, last July Dinh was the unhappy owner of $90,000 in "put" options that could have delivered a hefty payoff if Cisco Systems Inc. stock drooped below $15.00 a share-- but instead were close to expiring worthless.
Rather than eat the loss, Dinh allegedly constructed an electronic shell game to offload the contracts on a innocent dupe. Dinh built a list of targets by posting innocuous queries as "Stanley Hirsch" to a public forum on the trading discussion site stockcharts.com, and noting the e-mail addresses of people who responded. The next day, using the alias "Tony T. Riechert," he spammed those addresses with an offer to participate in a beta test of a new stock charting tool.
The "stock charting" tool turned out to be a Trojan horse called the "Beast," according to the government. An unsuspecting Westborough, Massachusetts investor -- unnamed in the complaints -- ran the program, and sometime thereafter accessed his online brokerage account with TD Waterhouse, while the Beast silently logged every keystroke. Dinh allegedly swept in later and downloaded the logs, obtaining the man's username and password.
A few days later, Dinh put his Cisco options up for sale at an inflated price through his own online broker, then used the purloined password to place a series of matching buy orders through the victim's account, "depleting almost all of the account's available cash," according to the SEC-- approximately $47,000.
With the account drained, Dinh remained stuck with some of the Cisco contracts, which expired worthless on July 19th. But the scheme shaved his losses by $37,000 -- the victim's $47,000, minus the broker's commission, according to the government
The SEC is seeking financial penalties against Dinh. The commission used the case Thursday to tout its ability to pierce the veil of Internet anonymity.
"Despite the use of complex anonymizer programs and other cloaking devices, our staff was able to unravel this conduct quickly," said Linda Chatman Thomsen, Deputy Director of the SEC's Enforcement Division, in a statement. "To those who attempt to use the perceived anonymity of the Internet to victimize investors, our message remains clear: we will track you down and hold you accountable."
A federal criminal complaint filed in Massachusetts on Thursday charges the young investor with computer intrusion, and wire, mail and securities fraud in connection with the alleged scheme.
A phone call to Dinh's home was not immediately returned Thursday.