July 2, 2009

Trusted Gamer In Virtual Cash Embezzlement Scam

A trusted figure in the EVE Online game stole money from the virtual bank he managed, and exchanged it for real-world cash via the black market.

The embezzlement took place in the popular game EVE Online, which has more than 300,000 subscribers who pay $15 a month to play.   The game has players earning their wealth through hard work, market manipulation, or offing competitors in a distant future where people have colonized the stars.

The scam centers on EBank, EVE's largest player-run financial institution, which has thousands of depositors. 

EBank's 27-year-old CEO embezzled some 200 billion "interstellar credits", the game's virtual currency.

"Basically this character was one of the people that had been running EBank for a while. He took a bunch of (virtual) money out of the bank, and traded it away for real money," Ned Coker, of the Iceland-based company CCP, which developed the game, told Reuters.

Identifying himself only as Richard and going by the online name Ricdic, EBank's CEO violated the rules of the game by exchanging the stolen virtual funds for $6,300 Australian ($5,100 USD) with players who wanted to purchase virtual money rather than earn it in the game.

"It was a very on the spot decision," said the Australian tech worker in an interview with Reuters. 

The married father of two said a spam email for a black market Web site that traded virtual cash for real-world money showed up on his screen.   He then made the exchange to fund a deposit on his house and to pay for expenses incurred due his son's medical problems, he said.

"I saw that as an avenue that could be taken, and I decided to skim off the top, you could say, to overcome real life (difficulties)," he said.

Word of the embezzlement circulated fast within EVE, as customers panicked and created a run on the bank amid worries they might lose their money.

If Ricdic had simply stolen the virtual cash he could have remained in the game, but exchanging the virtual cash for real dollars violated the rules, leading to CCP to ban Richard's EBank accounts.

"It unbalances the game," Coker said.

Players can only purchase virtual money with real money, or use virtual money to buy playing time, but they are not permitted to exchange game money for the real cash.

"We have never seen ourselves as gods who make the rules of social interaction," Eyjolfur Gudmundsson, an economics adviser to CCP, told Reuters.

"You are able to lose the things you have created. That's what makes the world interesting."

In an ironic twist, Richard had established a solid reputation as one of EVE's few trusted players,  a prized commodity in the online game where blowing up a violator's spaceship was the only way to enforce some contracts.

When asked if he had any regrets, Richard said he felt he let down by some at EBank whom he considered friends.

"I'm not proud of it at all, that's why I didn't brag about it. But you know, if I had to do it again, I probably would've chosen the same path based on the same situation," he said.

Although EBank has survived the scandal, Richard will not be returning to EVE anytime soon.

"At the moment, we've got our hands full," Richard said about his real-world responsibilities.


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