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Hacker steals $12 million worth of Zynga poker chips

UPDATE: Zynga response now included in story.

A gambling addict hacked into gaming heavyweight Zynga and stole 400 billion virtual poker chips worth $12 million to sell on the black market. He got caught and now he's facing some very real prison time.

No amount of Farmville tasks can get him out of this one.

Ashley Mitchell, 29, pleaded guilty to five charges brought under the Computer Misuse Act and the Proceeds from Crime Act and remanded until a date was fixed for sentencing, according to BBC.  

BBC reported that Mitchell, who has apparently struggled with an online gambling addiction (especially Zynga poker), "posed as an administrator for the Zynga Poker game on Facebook in order to get at the computer systems for the game and steal the chips" between June and September 2009. He laundered the chips through a series of Facebook accounts trying to play catch me if you can with Zynga, best known for its popular (and addictive) Facebook games Farmville, Mafia Wars and the booming Cityville. But Zynga didn't get where it is by being dumb, and they soon figured out something was amiss. They organized a sting. And they stung.

He made only about $86,000 before he was pinched.

The judge warned Mitchell he's looking at some substantial time behind bars, though he has yet to specify the duration. But seeing as how this isn't Mitchell's first dance as a hacker — he has a previous conviction of hacking into a local council's web site  to change his personal details — punishment might be stiff.

Besides wondering if it is illegal to pilfer fake currency, I'm also pondering, maybe it's also time to call Gamblers Anonymous? Develop had some answers via Jas Purewal, lawyer and author of Gamer/Law, who told the publication that the case has set a new precedent.

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. This case is particularly interesting because it involved a UK court recognising virtual currency - in this case, Zynga chips - as legal property which can be protected by existing UK criminal laws...The court effectively found that, even though virtual currency isn't real and is infinite in supply, it still can deserve legal protection in the same way as real world currency.

UPDATE: A Zynga spokesperson sent us this response: 

"Zynga treats game security with the utmost of seriousness.   We want to provide our users with the safest and most enjoyable game experience possible.  To that end, we have a world class security team which continues to proactively identify and address security breaches with the highest priority.  We will pursue these issues vigorously, which could involve criminal and civil prosecutions."

Your thoughts, dear readers?