Two men recently met in the Fordham University library for a simple currency exchange: $3,300 for 4.7 billion RuneScape coins. When the deal looked shady, the seller of the coins wanted to back out. That’s when the alleged buyer pulled a gun on him and demanded that the transaction go through. Fortunately, this thief did nothing to mask his identity or cover his tracks, so the Boston police picked him up in no time. Unlike many similar stories, this one involves actual criminal charges for the thief. The New York Post reports that the alleged thief, Humza Bajwa, faces second-degree robbery and grand larceny. Is the world finally starting to realize that virtual items have real value?
This is definitely one of the strangest stories I’ve heard about in the five or so years that I’ve been study virtual worlds. I’ve read about thefts through hacking or trickery, some of which lead to actual violence, but never has a fact scenario like produced a result like this in the United States. The situation is unique in that involved two victims, a face-to-face transaction and a fake gun. Most thefts of virtual items are the result of hacking or phishing, where a person’s account login information is stolen, which is then used to transfer items and currency to the thief’s account. Here, the thief offered to buy a large quantity of RuneScape coins for $3,300 and wanted to meet in public for the exchange. This is another rarity, as most often the players are on opposite sides of the world and the transfer would be all electronic. The chances for one side or the other to be ripped off are great, as few game companies actually sanction such real money trading (RMT). A personal exchange is a good way to avoid that, but not when one side appears to be giving you fake money for your virtual currency. When David Emani met Bajwa on behalf of his friend, Jonathan Dokler–who was at home at his computer, ready to make the transfer once Emani received the cash–he suspected something was up when the cash Bajwa gave him looked bogus. Rather than call off the deal, Dokler had Emani meet Bajwa a second day, prepared to examine the cash more closely. That’s when Bajwa pulled the gun (which turned out to be fake) on Emani and threatened him unless he told Dokler to complete the transaction. Fortunately, Emani was not injured.
There are so many things that are amazing about this situation, but what I’m most amazed by isn’t that someone would try to steal virtual currency, but that the police and the prosecutor were willing to see this as an actual crime. In the past, as I mentioned, law enforcement in the United States has ignored reports of virtual thefts, citing a lack of concrete value or verifiable loss. This is not surprising because virtual items and currency generally lack any real-world equivalency and are traded on the black market. There are some worlds that do have recognized currency markets (Second Life being the most well-known, but also Entropia Universe and Blizzard’s new Diablo III) but the vast majority of worlds and games choose to keep their currency as an in-house transaction facilitation tool and lock down their use in the terms of service. That usually means that when a virtual item or currency is traded (or stolen), there is no crime, but a breach of the virtual world’s contract. Few people are ever in the position to pursue legal action against a thief, either because they lack grounds to sue (it’s not their contract that was violated, but the game company’s) or because a suit would cost up to 1000 times the value of what was stolen–not a wise move.
I’ve already set my Westlaw alert, and I will be following the outcome of this case closely. Whether it was the fact that he pulled a gun or that there was a decided upon value between the parties that gave the virtual currency sufficient value for the state to consider theft charges, I guess we’ll have to wait and see. Either way, this is a watershed moment in virtual law.