British hacker Ashley Mitchell was sentenced to two years in prison after pleading guilty to stealing over 400 billion virtual poker chips from social game Zynga Poker. Mitchell made roughly £53,612 ($86,000) over the course of two months by selling one-third of the chips to third-party grey market RMT sites. Mithcell obtained the chips by hacking into Zynga computers using assumed Zynga employee identities. The chips Mithcell stole would have been worth £7 million ($12 million) if purchased directly from Zynga.
Zynga noticed large quantities of chips disappearing in August 2009 and initially suspected the two employees whose identities Mithcell adopted while hacking. Once evidence of hacking was discovered, investigators began looking for suspects in the Paignton area. Investigators seized computers belonging to Mitchell’s neighbors, as Mithcell often used their unsecured Wi-Fi signals while hacking. Mitchell was identified in the case through his Facebook account, which he used in one of his hacking attempts.
“It was clear there had been a systematic approach adopted in probing and accessing Zynga. Checks on [Mitchell’s] bank account showed at this time he bought items including a Rolex watch and was also spending money on online gambling,” said prosecuting attorney James Taghdissian, in courtroom statements reported by the Guardian. “He made determined and repeated efforts to attack Zynga’s systems. He succeeded and transferred 400 billion chips and sold them to realise a substantial profit.”
Mitchell’s defense attorney Ben Darby tried to argue that the virtual poker chips had no true value, because Zynga could manufacture as many as it wanted at no real cost. Judge Phillip Wassall was not sympathetic to this argument or arguments that Mitchell was compelled by a gambling addiction, instead handing down the two-year sentence. This case has now set legal precedent in the Western world for ascribing real value to the virtual currencies sold by online game operators like Zynga.
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