Virtual reality of cyber policing

Police across the world are becoming increasingly concerned at the growing incidents of serious crime, such as child pornography, identity fraud and money laundering, in virtual worlds such as Second Life. There are also fears that terrorists could also take advantage of difficulties in policing ‘virtual’ dollar movements to transfer funds between operatives around the world. So how do the police meet these challenges?

Nov 29, 2007
By Paul Jacques
South Yorkshire Police Chief Constable Lauren Poultney with Chief Inspector Jayne Forrest and OK9 Wellbeing dog Buddy with their Leadership award.

Police across the world are becoming increasingly concerned at the growing incidents of serious crime, such as child pornography, identity fraud and money laundering, in virtual worlds such as Second Life. There are also fears that terrorists could also take advantage of difficulties in policing ‘virtual’ dollar movements to transfer funds between operatives around the world. So how do the police meet these challenges?

The recent arrest of a Dutch teenager on suspicion of stealing furniture worth £2,800 from a hotel room might, on the face of it, seem a relatively minor offence.

But there is one extraordinary difference – the crime happened not in real life but in a ‘virtual’ hotel in the three-dimensional world Habbo Hotel, a game that exists only on the Internet.

Four other teenagers were also questioned in relation to the virtual crime, believed to represent a first for online policing.

It was of particular interest to the Dutch police because the currency used in the virtual world – Habbo credits – is exchangeable for cash: in other words, a real crime had been committed in a virtual world, in this case by hacking into the accounts of other users.

The 17-year-old chief suspect is charged with stealing victims` ID and passwords by creating fake Habbo websites. He then ‘stole’ their virtual furniture, which users had paid for with real money, to furnish his own hotel room.

The problem for police, who are trying to bring charges of theft, is that there has not yet been a judgment in a case like this. Although the furniture may not be a physical object it does represent a certain value.

Habbo claims to have around 80 million registered users, typically teenagers, in 31 countries. These create their own avatars – a virtual representation of a real person – and buy furniture to decorate hotel rooms while playing a number of games, some of which involve virtual money that is purchased with real money. But identity theft is a growing problem and Habbo admits that scamming for other people`s personal information, such as user names, has been problematic for quite a while.

The case brings up the question over whether virtual currency exchanges that trade in real money should be regulated in the real world. Virtual theft is a very real problem, highlighted by the stealing of 10,000 Linden dollars – the currency in the virtual world Second Life and worth around $40 in real money – by a hacker who gained access to the in-world stock exchange.

The Linden dollar is named after the company behind the virtual reality world, which boasts a global membership of around seven million. About 250 Linden dollars are equivalent to one US dollar and residents can buy the currency from the company to trade in Second Life.

It is estimated that over $1 million (£490,000) a day is exchanged in Second Life. Users can even trade Second Life goods and currency on auction sites such as eBay. A virtual Levi jacket, for example, was bought at an online auction for $83 – a real one costs $78.

The sale of virtual goods for Internet games and online worlds is a boom industry, with the market currently valued at around £750 million a year. Entropia Universe was the first ‘world’ to make headlines for big-money virtual world sales when one user paid $100,000 for a space station.

Yet despite the popularity of virtual environments such as Second Life, virtual property laws remain untested in most parts of the world.

Police in China have been tackling cases of virtual theft for many years, including instances of organised gangs engaging in online robbery. Last year, officers arrested more than 40 suspects who were accused of stealing up to 700,000 yuan (£45,500) worth of virtual items from users of one popular website.

Other countries have also been grappling with the challenge of how to police virtual worlds. Many police stations in South Korea have cyber patrols to deal with the increasing outbreaks of criminal activity in virtual worlds,

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