Briton Ashley Mitchell stole $12 million in online currency

Zynga thief jailed for two years

An IT businessman has been jailed for two years after pleading guilty to stealing around $12 million in online game currency.

Ashley Mitchell, 29, based in the Devonshire costal town of Paignton, last month admitted in court that he hacked into the accounts of social gaming giant Zynga.

He had stolen the identity of two Zynga employees, Exeter crown court heard. He transferred around 400 billion virtual poker chips into his account and began selling the currency on the black market.

Mitchell made £53,000 before his arrest, though he stood to make around £184,000 from the chips. Zynga’s sale value of the currency would have been $12 million, the court heard.

Zynga, which has vast reserves of virtual poker chips, noticed in August 2009 that large volumes of the currency had gone missing. The firm initially suspected two fellow employees, both of which Mitchell had assumed the online identity of.

Mitchell had been illicitly accessing Zynga’s accounts using his neighbours’ Wifi connections, the court heard. Their computers were seized as authorities tried to identify the hacker.

Yet Mitchell, who confessed he was a gambling addict, was finally caught out after he tried to hack Zynga while still tied to his Facebook profile.

“It was clear there had been a systematic approach adopted in probing and accessing Zynga,” prosecutor Taghdissian said, as quoted by the Guardian.

“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," he added.

Judge Philip Wassall told him: "The dishonesty in this case was substantial and protracted. Online security is a priority for everyone these days.

"You deprived Zynga of income. It is quite clear you used a considerable degree of expertise and persistence to hack into the system.

"It is a considerable aggravating feature that someone hacks into systems in this way when so much business and personal finance is done using electronic means.

"From internet banking to major international transactions, people rely on the security of systems and anyone who comes before the courts who has gone through these security systems from their own ends can expect custody.

"The sentence has to reflect the impact on public confidence in security systems and online business when someone breaches security in this way."

The actual value of Zynga’s intangible and instantly replicable online currency had sparked debate in Mitchell’s previous court hearing.

Jas Purewal, lawyer and author of Gamer/Law, explained to Develop that the case has set a new precedent.

“This shows that the legal regulation and protection of virtual goods and currency, which historically has been fairly uncertain, is evolving fast – driven partly by the boom in virtual goods sales in games.

“This case is particularly interesting because it involved a UK court recognising virtual currency – in this case, Zynga chips – as legal property which can be protected by existing UK criminal laws.

“The court effectively found that, even though virtual currency isn’t real and is infinite in supply, it still can deserve legal protection in the same way as real world currency”.

Purewal said the case is a “vindication” for Zynga and other virtual goods providers.

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