An IT expert from England could face jail time after stealing an alleged $12 million in online poker chips from Zynga’s Texas Hold’em application on Facebook. Ashley Mitchell, 29, pled guilty to five charges on Wednesday and was told by Judge Philip Wassall that he faced a substantial jail term for performing the “sophisticated” offenses.
According to sources, Mitchell hacked into Zynga’s system and transferred 400 billion virtual poker chips to several fake Facebook accounts that he had set up. He then turned to eBay to sell the virtual chips, netting $85,870 before his arrest. Had he been given the chance to sell all of his chips at the price he was setting, Mitchell would’ve made close to $300,000. Zynga values the stolen chips at $12 million if sold directly to customers.
Zynga states on its website that it is the only authorized seller of chips in its games. There are currently several unofficial sites selling Zynga chips at discount prices, an act that is considered to be illegal. The company says in its Terms of Service that buying Zynga chips from a third party will result in a player’s chip stack being reset to zero, and selling Zynga chips will result in a permanent account ban and legal prosecution.
Mitchell appeared in court where prosecutor Gareth Evans said that, in theory, his theft was no different from a criminal stealing paper money from a government mint even though it was a virtual crime. Zynga can simply make more poker chips appear at the press of a button, but Mitchell still took money out of its pockets by redirecting customers to the Zynga Poker “black market.”
Evans detailed the case against Mitchell, saying, “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. By my reckoning, the total value if sold on the black market of the 400 billion was in the region of £184,000.”
Mitchell pled guilty to four charges of converting criminal property along with violating the Computer Misuse Act. His attorney said the crimes were committed when his client was “wrestling with a gambling addiction” that resulted in him spending $4,850 on online games. He said Mitchell was now drawing a six-figure salary from a Facebook application called Gambino Poker and asked the judge to consider allowing him to repay the £184,000 over two years.
Jas Purewal, author of Gamer/Law, told Develop Online that he believes the explosion in online gaming and the sales of goods within gaming is leading to case precedents regarding digital currencies. “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,” Purewal said. “This case is particularly interesting because it involved a U.K. court recognizing virtual currency – in this case, Zynga chips – as legal property which can be protected by existing U.K. criminal laws.”
This wasn’t Mitchell’s first run-in with the law. He was already given a 40-week suspended prison sentence for hacking into computers at the local council and changing his personal details three years ago. The sentencing is scheduled for next month.