Exclusive: New SEC enforcement chiefs see cyber crime as biggest market threat

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Hackers are increasingly breaking into brokerage accounts to steal assets or make illegal trades, prompting U.S. securities regulators to start tracking cyber crimes more closely, two newly appointed enforcement officials said in an interview on Thursday.

Stephanie Avakian, co-director of the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission (SEC), is shown in this September 10, 2014 handout photo provided June 8, 2017. Courtesy U.S. SEC/Handout via REUTERS

On Thursday, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission named Stephanie Avakian and Steven Peikin as new co-directors of enforcement.

In an exclusive interview ahead of the formal announcement, the two said they were deeply concerned about cyber threats and see the topic as a major enforcement priority.

“The greatest threat to our markets right now is the cyber threat,” said Peikin, who was still wearing a guest badge because he has not yet received his formal SEC credentials yet. “That crosses not just this building, but all over the country.”

The SEC has started to see an “uptick” in the number of investigations involving cyber crime, as well as an increase in reports of brokerage account intrusions, Avakian said. As a result, the agency has started gathering statistics about cyber crimes to spot broader market-wide issues.

The kinds of cyber crimes the SEC has been noticing range from stealing information for the purpose of insider trading, to breaking into accounts to either steal assets, trade against them or manipulate markets.

Last year, for instance, the SEC accused a U.K.-based man with hacking into numerous accounts, placing unauthorized trades and then profiting by trading the same stocks in his own personal account.

“I think we will see the cyber threat continue to emerge,” Avakian said.

Avakian has been serving as acting director of enforcement since December. It is her second stint at the agency, having rejoined in 2014 after working in private practice at the law firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr.

Peikin, a former federal prosecutor, will join the SEC on June 26 from Sullivan & Cromwell, a law firm where newly appointed SEC Chairman Jay Clayton also worked.

He has represented Goldman Sachs Group Inc GS.N and Barclays PLC BARC.L, as well as Michael Coscia, the first person to be criminally convicted under a new law that aims to prevent traders from “spoofing” the market by putting in bids with the intent to cancel them.

The dual enforcement role can help prevent problems by allowing officials to recuse themselves when conflicts or the appearance of conflicts of interest exist.

During Clayton’s confirmation hearing, some lawmakers raised concerns that his prior work at Sullivan & Cromwell could lead him to go easy on Wall Street or create too many recusals that cause the commissioners to deadlock on cases.

A similar arrangement was in place under former SEC Chair Mary Jo White and co-enforcement directors Andrew Ceresney and George Canellos. White and Ceresney each came to the SEC from the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton LLP.

Both Avakian and Peikin stressed that enforcement efforts at the SEC will continue to be “vigorous” and that conflicts will not impede the division’s activities.

“There is no room for bad actors,” Avakian said.

For instance, despite President Donald Trump describing the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), an anti-bribery statute, as a “horrible law” that should be changed, the two said they expect the SEC will continue to pursue such cases.

They also said they expect the SEC will continue to weigh whether corporate penalties are appropriate in certain cases.

“I think it is fair to question whether a particular penalty is actually achieving the result,” Peikin said, “But I wouldn’t expect to see...a vacation from corporate fines and penalties.”

Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Lauren Tara LaCapra and Lisa Shumaker