Many people associate the term “insider trading” with illegal conduct. But the term refers to both legal and illegal activities. The SEC’s legal version is that corporate insiders, i.e., officers, directors, employees, or anyone with at least a 10% stake in a company, can buy and sell stock in the company providing they abide by the SEC’s restrictions and transactional requirements.

In 2002, the SEC tightened its rules by adopting the Regulation Fair Disclosure to curb the practice of company executives giving securities analysts an inside track; the rules mandate that anything disclosed to an outsider must be revealed to the general public. The SEC also includes in its definition of insiders those who have “temporary” or “constructive” access to the material information, such as business associates, friends, family members, brokers, attorneys and “other tipees.” The U.S. Supreme Court ruled recently that any individual, with or without ties to the particular company, who is in possession of material information, even if the information was stolen, is an insider.

Illegal insider trading, according to the SEC, refers to the buying or selling of a security in breach of a fiduciary duty or other relationship of trust and confidence, while in possession of material, nonpublic information. Insider trading violations include “tipping” such information, trading in securities by the person “tipped” and trading by those who misappropriate the information.

The SEC considers the prosecution of insider trading violations a top priority. The exhaustive publicity of illegal insider trading cases sends a strong message that no one is outside its radar. A spokesperson for the Division of Enforcement said that the SEC is aggressively rooting out and identifying hard-to-detect insider trading by connecting patterns of trading to sources of material nonpublic information, whether those sources are law firms, banks or others with a duty to keep the information confidential. Prosecutors add that illegal trading is now easier to prove as direct evidence of fraudulent intent can be obtained through wiretaps, e-mails, text messages, social media contacts, etc. And that evidence also is useful to convince co-conspirators to turn on each other and provide even more substantial proof of fraud. Going after the violators is critical because their actions hurt individual investors and undermine public confidence that allows firms to raise money in the capital markets.

Individuals who are convicted of criminal insider trading face prison terms (the Sarbanes-Oxley Act extended the maximum length of sentences) and fines in addition to civil penalties, which can be triple the realized profit or the loss avoided. Violators also may be charged with mail and wire frauds and possibly with tax evasion and obstruction of justice. Further consequences include being barred from serving as executives or directors of public companies and being named as defendants in multi-million dollar lawsuits. Corporations are subject to penalties for failure to establish compliance programs and for failure to ensure reasonable efforts to prevent violations under the theory of “controlling person” liability. Even if an insider trading investigation does not result in formal charges, the company’s reputation may suffer from the stigma and adverse publicity.