Virtual money laundering threat identified

  • 12 November 2007

Based on the findings of a recent study, ICC Commercial Crime Services (CCS) is warning users of on-line games to remain informed about the increasing risk of transferring money and personal information on-line.

Commercial crime has long been a global phenomenon that knows no boundaries. Now, the Internet security giant Symantec is reporting that virtual worlds such as Second Life and World of Warcraft are being targeted by organised crime as vehicles for laundering money.

Symantec’s recently released Internet Security Threat Report predicts that as the use and popularity of virtual environments expands, they will increasingly face threats from organised crime. Symantec predicts that in the next six to 24 months a number of security concerns will emerge. Among other issues identified, the company highlighted money laundering and identity theft as potential problems.

ICC Commercial Crime Services (CCS) spokesman Max Vetter stated: “Symantec’s latest findings raise important concerns about the potential abuse of new technology by large-scale criminal enterprises. Users of certain on-line games should make every effort to protect themselves against theft and fraud.”

The nature and operation of virtual worlds such as Second Life makes them an attractive mark for those seeking to move funds quickly and with anonymity.

Officially termed Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOG) Second Life and World of Warcraft allow players to conduct real-money transactions in virtual worlds. Players can use credit cards or other payment methods to purchase virtual credits. Those credits can then be exchanged with players in other countries, and then easily withdrawn into local currencies. These transactions have evolved into a de-facto international monetary system with complex exchanges developed for trading virtual currency across different MMOGs.

Mr Vetter added, “Although at this point the volume of criminal activity in this area is not concerned substantial, that is exactly why we wish to draw attention to the matter. It is key that unregulated monetary exchanges such as these be identified and monitored before they are infiltrated by criminal elements.”

The Symantec report provides greater detail stating: “A criminal enterprise could open several thousand MMOG accounts. Each could be used to trade with other players in the purchase or sale of in-game assets, the funds from which would ultimately be withdrawn from the accounts. Since thousands of accounts may engage in millions of transactions, each with small profits or losses, it would be difficult to trace the true source of the funds when they are withdrawn. These transactions can be conducted worldwide without the oversight that typically accompanies international bank remittances. In fact, in February 2007, China’s central bank and finance ministries called upon companies to stop trading QQ coins and virtual currencies, presumably to curb the unregulated exchange of currency.”