Gaming the System: Cash Laundering By way of On-line Video games


Online video games – particularly huge multiplayer on-line role-playing video games – have lengthy been suspected of providing an avenue for shifting or in any other case utilizing legal proceeds, a course of generally known as cash laundering. As early as 2013, cybercrime analyst Jean-Loup Richet wrote, primarily based on his investigation of hacker boards, that ‘utilizing the digital foreign money methods in [online] video games, criminals in a single nation can ship digital cash to associates out of the country’.

If legal cash has certainly poured into on-line gaming worlds, one may hardly consider a greater demonstration of ‘the displacement impact’: the notion that as some elements of the economic system grow to be ever extra tightly regulated, tainted cash goes elsewhere, just like the air in a squeezed balloon. However how precisely can on-line video games be used for cash laundering, what proof is there of this occurring, and what ought to be finished about this?

The State of Play

The important thing issue that makes cash laundering via on-line video games potential is that digital, in-game gadgets generally have a real-life worth exterior the sport. This contains, as an illustration, artefacts that vest the participant’s character with further powers (comparable to swords, armour, and magic potions) or ‘foreign money’ that can be utilized to buy them.

Some video games formally permit the acquisition and sale of in-game gadgets for government-issued fiat foreign money, comparable to dollars or kilos. This observe is named ‘microtransactions’ and is especially widespread in video games which can be free to play however supply paid in-game gadgets. For instance, Second Life and Entropia Universe permit in-game purchases via their official shops. Moreover, a rising variety of video games resort to gambling-style microtransactions by promoting ‘loot bins’, a set of randomly chosen in-game artefacts whose contents are solely revealed to the client after buy.

On-line video games should not regulated, which implies there aren’t any clear expectations of what recreation operators can or ought to do to establish legal exercise

In response to evaluation by Juniper Analysis cited within the Parliament of Australia’s 2018 enquiry (p. 5), gross sales of loot bins generated 25% of the worldwide gaming business’s income of $117 billion. In 2016, Digital Arts (EA) reported that loot bins account for $650 million per 12 months, roughly 30% of EA’s digital gross sales income.

In different situations, in-game gadgets are traded unofficially on on-line marketplaces extraneous to the sport. This underground commerce has traditionally been intently associated to ‘gold farming’, the observe of enjoying on-line video games particularly to acquire invaluable gadgets and resell them to different players. Gold farming had its heyday within the mid-2000s, when economist Edward Castronova estimated (p. 149) that eBay was buying and selling $30 million price of in-game items per 12 months, with World of Warcraft’s ‘gold’ buying and selling towards the US greenback at the next alternate charge than that of Japanese yen.

Unofficial sale of in-game gadgets can contravene the sport’s guidelines and has given rise to a number of court docket disputes within the US (Blacksnow Interactive vs. Mythic Leisure, Inc.; Hernandez vs. Web Gaming Leisure Ltd; and MDY Industries vs. Blizzard Leisure). For example, World of Warcraft doesn’t permit direct purchases of its ‘gold’ with fiat foreign money, however does supply a particular token that may be bought for £17 and auctioned off for gold in-game. In 2007, eBay introduced a clampdown on listings of digital merchandise obtained in breach of software program use agreements, together with in-game gadgets. Nonetheless, plenty of English-language web sites, comparable to PlayerAuctions, or iGVault, proceed to checklist in-game gadgets.

Since in-game gadgets can be utilized to retailer worth, some could also be tempted to transform illicit earnings into them. In January 2019, cyber safety agency Sixgill revealed its findings on cash laundering via V-bucks, an in-game foreign money used within the on-line laptop recreation Fortnite. In response to Sixgill, criminals had been utilizing stolen financial institution card particulars to purchase V-bucks from the official Fortnite retailer after which promoting them at a reduced charge to different gamers on the darkish internet or via social media platforms. Equally, Kromtech, a software program improvement firm, reported that a cyber-criminal group had automated using stolen card particulars to create numerous Apple IDs, purchased in-game gadgets in cell video games comparable to Conflict of Clans or Marvel Contest of Champions, and resold them on third-party web sites for fiat foreign money.

In essence, shopping for in-game gadgets with stolen card particulars is not any completely different from the net buy of any good, tangible or intangible, with stolen card particulars. The first duty for detecting this legal exercise lies with the cost processing firm. That mentioned, the gaming firm can possess invaluable intelligence concerning the legal’s in-game actions, comparable to interactions with different gamers, which can make clear their id or expose legal networks.

There may be proof of ‘life-style spending’, or folks utilizing legal earnings to play on-line video games. In 2016, Kevin Lee Co admitted to stealing $four.eight million from his work, of which he spent $1 million on in-app purchases within the cell recreation Sport of Battle. In 2018, former library director Adam Winger pled responsible to theft and forgery after stealing $89,000 from the library, additionally to make use of on in-app purchases in Sport of Battle.

Way of life spending apart, it’s simple to think about a scheme designed to maneuver legal earnings. Suppose a drug trafficker deposits money with a poorly regulated abroad financial institution. As a substitute of creating a switch to their confederate’s UK checking account, they will buy on-line recreation foreign money and hand it over to the confederate’s in-game character, who can then in flip resell it for fiat cash. Alternatively, as an alternative of transferring particular in-game gadgets, she will be able to hand over the log-in particulars from her whole recreation account. Though the authors should not conscious of confirmed case research, comparable strategies had been mentioned within the cybercrime discussion board messages cited in Jean-Loup Richet’s 2013 report.

Whether or not a foreign money or commodity is effective depends upon whether or not folks deal with it as such

In distinction, cybercrime involving on-line video games is well-documented, particularly stealing login credentials after which promoting the hacked person’s in-game possessions. In response to TrendMicro, some rip-off web sites providing in-game gadgets on the market require clients to reveal their gaming login particulars, thus giving hackers entry to their account. As early as 2012, the identical firm reported that laptop recreation hacking is very widespread in China given its giant gaming group. In August 2019, FireEye alleged that APT41, a number one Chinese language cyber-criminal group, was systematically concentrating on the online game business, and in a single case ‘in lower than three hours the group generated tens of tens of millions of dollars of a well-liked recreation’s digital foreign money [which was then] almost definitely offered and laundered in underground markets’ (p. 19).

Apart from their value-transfer performance, on-line video games may have some attraction to criminals because of the communication channels they provide, various from moderated textual content chats to unfiltered audio chat. For instance, in 2018, the FBI offered Sony with a search warrant for a suspect’s PlayStation four knowledge as a part of an lively terror investigation. Paperwork leaked by Edward Snowden present that UK and US sign intelligence businesses (the Nationwide Safety Company and GCHQ) each collected data and knowledge from World of Warcraft, Second Life and Xbox Reside, reportedly on account of a worry that terrorists could be each speaking and shifting funds via these platforms.

Outflanked by Regulation?

If a pc recreation permits gamers to switch in-game gadgets to one another, and these in-game gadgets may be exchanged into fiat foreign money, the gaming firm’s place is much like that of a digital foreign money alternate. However not like gaming firms, digital foreign money exchanges ought to be topic to anti-money laundering/counter-terrorist financing (AML/CTF) regulation as per the October 2018 revision of the Suggestions of the Monetary Motion Job Drive (FATF), the worldwide AML/CTF standard-setter. Underneath these guidelines, regulated companies are required to establish their clients, monitor their exercise and report suspicions of criminality to authorities.

In 2016, Digital Arts (EA) reported that loot bins account for $650 million per 12 months, roughly 30% of EA’s digital gross sales income

On 1 July 2019, Linden Lab, the developer of the net recreation Second Life, introduced that every one Second Life customers would henceforth have to register with its totally owned subsidiary Tilia Inc., a cash service enterprise (MSB) licensed in 46 US states. As an MSB, Tilia is required to adjust to AML/CTF obligations below the Financial institution Secrecy Act and its implementing rules, together with in relation to buyer verification and suspicious transaction reporting.

The 47-page dialogue of the announcement on Second Life’s official discussion board shows some consternation among the many recreation’s customers, a few of them frightened that cashing out from Linden Dollars into fiat foreign money may grow to be extra sophisticated. The truth that Linden Lab itself had already been a registered MSB for at the very least a number of years – its licence was final renewed in December 2017 based on the official MSB register – has attracted comparatively little consideration, though it means that the corporate had way back concluded it needed to adjust to US AML/CTF guidelines.

Apart from their value-transfer performance, on-line video games may have some attraction to criminals because of the communication channels they provide

The increasing worldwide and home regulation of digital currencies, also referred to as digital belongings, might have performed its half. In October 2018, the FATF up to date its Suggestions in order to require states to manage and licence or register digital asset service suppliers (VASPs). The FATF makes use of the next definition of digital belongings: ‘A digital asset is a digital illustration of worth that may be digitally traded, or transferred, and can be utilized for cost or funding functions’.

The FATF additionally revealed steerage on digital belongings, which has similarities in key respects to the 2013 and 2019 paperwork issued by the US monetary intelligence unit, the Monetary Crimes Enforcement Community (FinCEN). Neither the FATF nor FinCEN states whether or not in-game currencies are lined by AML/CTF rules, but when one accepts the FATF definition as a place to begin, the primary query should be whether or not a given in-game foreign money constitutes ‘a illustration of worth’.

Each within the bodily world and on-line, whether or not a foreign money or commodity is effective depends upon whether or not folks deal with it as such. As the costs of Bitcoin and different cryptocurrencies reveal, a digital foreign money can purchase important financial worth within the eyes of the general public. If in-game gadgets may be traded, formally or unofficially, there’s a sturdy argument that they meet the FATF’s digital asset definition.

Even when it’s a third-party buying and selling platform that allows such commerce, the sport developer can face AML/CTF obligations in its capability because the issuer of digital foreign money. Crucially, the FATF’s definition encompasses not solely decentralised digital currencies comparable to Bitcoin or Ether, that are maintained by a dispersed person group with out a central administrator, but additionally these currencies that, like Linden Dollars, are issued by central administering entity.

This evaluation applies not solely to in-game currencies but additionally to another in-game gadgets. There isn’t a apparent motive why their operate throughout the recreation ought to make a distinction; what issues is whether or not they’re traded for fiat foreign money, which is proof of them being a digital illustration of worth.

Since many video games don’t intend their gadgets to be traded, it’s arguably unfair for the sport operator to bear the burdens of AML/CTF regulation solely on account of in-game gadgets being traded via an unauthorised third-party web site, on that account. However a digital merchandise can be utilized as an alternative to worth and thus be exploited for cash laundering no matter whether or not it’s traded formally or unofficially; nor would drawing such a distinction have any foundation within the FATF’s definition of a digital asset or VASP.

Since in-game gadgets can be utilized to retailer worth, some could also be tempted to transform illicit earnings into them

In observe, one may anticipate that the video games with the biggest in-game economies, official or unofficial, would be the first to both seem on the authorities’ radar or determine to take AML/CTF measures. In Second Life’s case, as an illustration, Linden Lab estimated in 2013 that the worth of its in-game transactions over the previous 10 years reached $three.2 billion, a scale that few video games have achieved.

Desk 1: Examples of In-Sport Currencies and Their Worth

*: Varies by merchandise bought, primarily based on in-app buy value.
†: Case Key value on Stream Group Market.
‡: See Etropia Universe, ‘Assume Future – Spend money on your Avatar!’, , accessed 11 October 2019.
§: Based mostly on the common value of a transaction on PlayerAuctions.
^: Based mostly on V-buck bundle on the Microsoft Retailer.
¶: Based mostly on value of pay as you go recreation playing cards, see League of Legends, ‘League of Legends Pay as you go Sport Playing cards’, , accessed 11 October 2019.
**: See CurrencyRate, ‘1 USD US Greenback to LD Linden Greenback’, , accessed 11 October 2019.
††: In response to the $20 value for one token on the official Blizzard Store, and an estimated public sale value of 1 token for 175,018 gold as per WoWTokenPrices.

A Little bit of a Gamble

In lots of nations, playing is both prohibited or regulated. If a web-based recreation entails microtransaction mechanics with a component of probability, it will probably probably fall throughout the playing regulatory regime. For example, in a number of video games, comparable to Grand Theft Auto On-line and Purple Lifeless On-line, a person’s character can gamble in an in-game on line casino.

Given the danger that such actions might quantity to illegal playing, some recreation builders take motion to keep away from authorized repercussions. Shortly after the FBI expressed curiosity in one of many digital casinos working inside Second Life in 2007, Linden Lab instituted a coverage whereby solely skill-based video games, which aren’t captured by the US definition of playing, are permitted. In Purple Lifeless On-line, the provision of poker varies from one US state to the opposite, relying on the native laws, despite the fact that enjoying it doesn’t contain digital gadgets which can be convertible into fiat foreign money.

In Nice Britain, the Playing Fee’s view is that to come back below playing regulation, a recreation should ‘feel and appear like conventional playing’ and contain bets or payouts in ‘cash or cash’s price’ (p. 6). The Fee additionally means that in-game gadgets represent cash or cash’s price if they’re traded for fiat foreign money – however, it appears, provided that it occurs ‘on a market inside a platform operated by the sport’s developer or distributer’ (p. four, authors’ emphasis). The UK Parliament’s Digital, Tradition, Media and Sport Committee concurs with many of the Playing Fee’s evaluation however argues that in-game gadgets may be ‘cash’s price’ on account of their subjective worth for the participant even when they can’t be transformed into fiat foreign money. Even when regulators or regulation enforcement businesses deem a pc recreation to contain playing, it is not going to essentially be topic to AML/CTF necessities. For example, the EU’s fourth Cash Laundering Directive permits nations to exclude non-casino playing operators from their AML/CTF regime if a nationwide threat evaluation so warrants. Within the UK, the place is but extra complicated: though solely casinos are topic to Cash Laundering Rules 2017, different playing retailers working within the UK face comparable AML/CTF necessities as a situation for acquiring a licence.

The Gaming Trade’s Subsequent Quest

To restate the problem, if traded for fiat foreign money, whether or not on a recreation’s official platform or elsewhere, in-game gadgets may be alluring to criminals. They are often stolen via hacking, bought with stolen card particulars or just purchased for enjoyable utilizing legal earnings. And though main duty for stopping the latter two points lies with the cost processing firm, a wealth of knowledge on the legal’s behaviour, comparable to transfers of in-game gadgets from one character to a different, is barely going to be accessible to the corporate working the sport whereas having potential regulation enforcement worth.

A rising variety of video games resort to gambling-style microtransactions by promoting ‘loot bins’, a set of randomly chosen in-game artefacts whose contents are solely revealed to the client after buy

But on-line video games should not regulated, which implies there aren’t any clear expectations of what recreation operators can or ought to do to establish legal exercise. For example, whereas they might conceivably monitor adjustments in gaming patterns or IP use to establish accounts surreptitiously transferred from one person to a different, whether or not doing so can be needed or proportionate is topic to debate – a debate that’s not but occurring.

To this point, governments have confined their examination of in-game transactions to client safety and/or playing points arising from ‘loot bins’, together with inquiries by the US Federal Commerce Fee, the Parliament of Australia and the UK Parliament, in addition to papers revealed by numerous state authorities in Belgium, France and the Netherlands, amongst others.

Necessary as these issues are, potential legal abuse of on-line video games additionally deserves consideration. Though subjecting on-line video games to AML/CTF regulation absent additional proof can be a step too far, governments ought to have interaction with the business to make clear expectations in relation to the identification of legal conduct and its reporting. Within the absence of an business regulator, one of many points governments might want to resolve is who precisely ought to drive that dialog.

As for the business itself, there may be little doubt that even within the absence of regulation, recreation builders have the highly effective incentive to safeguard their repute and be good company residents. To take action, they need to contemplate instituting buyer verification and voluntary reporting of suspicious exercise to regulation enforcement if their in-game gadgets commerce for fiat foreign money, whether or not formally throughout the recreation or on extraneous platforms.

Anton Moiseienko
Anton is a Analysis Fellow at RUSI’s Centre for Monetary Crime & Safety Research.

Kayla Izenman
Kayla is a Analysis Analyst at RUSI’s Centre for Monetary Crime & Safety Research.

BANNER IMAGE: The in-game gadgets and currencies that run the digital economies of on-line video games can have real-life worth exterior of the sport. The commerce and sale of those via official and unofficial channels poses a brand new atmosphere of money-laundering dangers. Courtesy of Anastassiya/

This text types a part of the Monetary Crime analysis programme sponsored by EY and Refinitiv. The authors are grateful to all those that have generously taken their time to debate this analysis with them.

The views expressed on this article are the authors’ and don’t signify these of RUSI or another establishment.


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