Man steals $12m worth of virtual poker chips

In case there was any doubt that virtual goods really do have value in the real world, a 29-year old British businessman is now facing a significant jail term after pleading guilty to stealing $12 million worth of Zynga Poker chips.

Ashley Mitchell admitted that he’d accessed the developers’s servers at some point between June 30 and September 7, 2009, stealing 400 billion virtual chips for the social media game. He then sold a bunch of the chips online, making a tidy £53,000 profit.

Zynga Poker

Zynga Poker

Prosecutor Gareth Evans outlined the case for the local media:

“The defendant sold around one third of the 400 billion poker chips and looking at the auction history where one can purchase such items he was selling them for around £430 per billion.”

He then explained that these black-market-buyers would then on-sell the chips themselves, making more money in the process, and that if they’d all been sold, Mr. Mitchell would have made £184,000.

However, Mr. Evans continued, if Zynga had sold them legitimately, the value would have been closer to US$12 million.

The nature of these virtual goods made the case more complex than a traditional fraud – Zynga were not deprived of any goods, as the company can always create more virtual chips. The main problem for Zynga would be a “knock-on effect”, if the company lost legitimate online gamers who were buying their chips elsewhere.

The offences Mr. Mitchell was found guilty of put him in breach of a 2008 suspended sentence, where he was convicted of hacking into a local council website and changing his personal details (netting himself £3,498 and a 40-week suspended sentence in the process).

Mr. Mitchell’s lawyer, Ben Derby, explained that his client had been “wrestling with a gambling addiction” at the time, and had spent £3,000 on online games.

Judge Philip Wassall handed down the substantial jail term as he considered the offenses to be “sophisticated”. Mitchell remains in custody until sentencing.

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