A computer hacker broke into the accounts of 4,000 fantasy role-playing gamers and sold their ‘virtual property’ for up to £3,000 to pay off his gambling debts in the real world, a court has heard.
Steven Burrell spent 16 months hacking scores of profiles on Runescape, which is recognised by Guinness World Records as the biggest online role-playing game in the world.
Driven by a motivation to gain “kudos” among internet users, Burrell then sold players’ virtual items on auction sites and forums, raising between £2,500 and £3,000, Northampton Magistrates’ Court heard.
The court was told the game’s developer, Jagex, spent 1,000 man hours addressing customer complaints as a direct result of Burrell’s actions.
After his initial arrest in April, Burrell emailed Jagex to apologise for his behaviour. But he then hacked their game 27 further times before he was arrested again in July.
Burrell, aged 21, of Edith Street, Northampton, admitted two charges relating to unauthorised computer access.
He accessed player accounts on 3,872 occasions, and modified 105 accounts.
Russell Tyner, prosecuting, said: “This activity relates to an online game called Runescape.
“It is recognised as one of the largest games currently in existence, taking place in the realm of a medieval fantasy world.
“Players have characters and they acquire resources. They have a real-world value.
“What the prosecution say is Mr Burrell has acquired some of these unlawfully.
“To do this, he accessed other players’ accounts, and has gone on to sell the items on auction sites and forums.
“By his own admission, he has made between £2,500 and £3,000. It is quite clear he has invested quite a lot of time and energy in this pursuit.
“His principal motivation was to gain kudos among people on the internet. Once a player has lost gaming resources, there is no redress.”
The court heard databases were found on Burrell’s computer, along with password- cracking software, and that he went to “great lengths” to obscure the activity taking place on the machine.
Burrell was also cautioned in July 2012 by Yorkshire Police in relation to compromising a Facebook account of a Jagex employee, the court was told.
Stuart Jeffery, mitigating, said: “He is a normal, rational human being, whose course of conduct has clearly caused a lot of trouble.
“He used a fantasy world to try to deal with problems in the real world, which were financial and related to gambling.
“It is clear he did not consider the long-term consequences because that world was not real.”
Mr Jeffery said his client had been “foolish” and conceded his conviction would make him unemployable in some circumstances.
District Judge Tim Daber sentenced Burrell to a 12-month community order with supervision, to include 150 hours unpaid work.
He was also ordered to pay £100 costs and a £60 victim surcharge, and forfeit his two computers.