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Man steals virtual money to pay real debts

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On the eve of Johnny Depp's latest film about infamous Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger, a new kind of bank hold-up is being executed with unfortunate regularity around the world. Apparently, the rise of interactive online gaming has spawned virtual outlaws who literally rob businesses in their game's virtual world and sell the loot to other players for the real thing.

In many online gaming environments, people gain power and social status very much the same way they do in the real world: with money. In the most recent case, which has helped establish the practice as a more common act of criminality, an Australian man arranged a scheme through a "black market" Web site for this very thing, to swap virtual dollars for thousands in real cash to cover a growing list of debts.

In this instance, the world was within EVE Online and the player, who is only identified as Richard, was the CEO of EBank, one of the game's most recognized financial institutions. In these gaming environments, regular players who build solid reputations as trustworthy executives, quickly rise to respected posts within the community and just like on the real Wall Street, become purveyors over everyone else's money.

A spokesman for the company that developed the game, which has more than 300,000 subscribers each paying at least $15 per month, described the crime in blunt terms. "Basically this character was one of the people that's been running EBank for a while. He took a bunch of (virtual) money out of the bank, and traded it away for real money."

The virtual amount was $200 billion interstellar credits. With current exchange rates, Richard received a little over $5,000 actual U.S. dollars. Like all criminals, those with whom he arranged the heist were simply seeking to get as much game credit as possible without having to earn it.

Since players use real money in exchange for virtual money while playing the game, a lot of real people got swindled as a result of Richard's back-door dealings. Gamers can also earn virtual money by simply playing, accumulating wealth along the way by means of capturing space pirates or staking mining claims on errant asteroids.

The Eve Online gaming community was shocked at the news that someone so widely respected in their world turned out to be someone else. However, he was pushed into the crime to help pay for medical bills for his son and a house deposit. Apparently the health insurance crisis is even affecting the virtual world.

Real problems aside, had Richard's antics been left only to the virtual world, he would have been able to remain a member of the community. Since he took the virtual into reality, he broke a coveted rule of the game and thus, his account has been terminated. Looks like it's back to just playing Space Invaders for a while.

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