Using online multiplayer game in-game assets as a way to launder money

The popularity of multiplayer games does not show signs of stopping and every year new games are being released and developed. Game developers have introduced the concept of in-game assets, to keep players interested in their particular game and spend more money on a specific game by playing it longer or purchasing in-game assets.

The concept of in-game assets is a large and undefined part of the virtual world. Most gamers would argue that it is their property, that they have bought or collected them in the game.

As in-game assets could be anything from weapons, armor or swords in the game, but also, they could be gold or skins, these assets can be found in games, for example, “Counter Strike”, “World of Warcraft” or “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds”.

Most people and gamers would be unaware, that those in-game assets could be and are used as money laundering tools. For some, these in-game assets are a way to hide their income and their illicit money. This is due to the fact that in-game assets have a monetary value.

These assets can be sold in most third-party online marketplaces and in some cases even in the marketplaces owned by game developers. Marketplaces provide players an opportunity to sell and buy in-game assets with flat currency. While most players use it for their own interest or to take part in an online auction for fun, others can use these seemingly mundane transactions to launder their illicit funds.

This article will highlight some of the major factors that may prevent the prosecution from catching money launderers, who use in-games assets and marketplaces to launder money.

One of the main obstacles for prosecutors is the principle of territoriality. The online world has no limitations and it offers people the opportunity to connect with each other all around the world. National laws are drawn up to have an effect only to the extent that the nations’ borders are confined.

In the European Union, Member States do co-operate with each other to catch criminals, but this kind of co-operation is not in place in other places in the world. For example, using servers in third countries outside the European Economic Area and connecting the trace to different continents may prove enough of an obstacle for European law enforcement to hinder their investigation in the cyber domain.

The European Commission is planning to release a regulation on digital and e-evidence, that would legislate and improve digital evidence collection within the European Union. The idea of this regulation is to allow one Member States judicial system to issue an order to receive evidence about a suspect in another Member State.

While the idea is innovative, it may come short. This is because it regulates actions done only in the European Union, meaning that all actions in other countries would not fall in the scope of this regulation.

One key factor, that criminals use to mask their identities and actions is the anonymity, that the Internet provides. As building up a case against someone would require a lot of evidence, the criminals can mask their true identity by using different types of software and other means to disguise their identity.

These can include IP hiders, cookie disablers, using multiple servers across different continents. The only factor for criminals is if they do not use these anonymity providing software every time they make an illegal transaction or they forget to activate these, they can be traced back to their actual location and identity.

Most games and marketplaces require an individual to identify themselves. The common identification tool is credit cards, as there are only a handful of options to use for identification. Credit card information can be bought from the black market for a few US dollars, rendering the secure identification measures inapt.

Even if law enforcement can trace the criminal, the mixture of different legislations and non-harmonious legal definitions may become a major obstacle in trying to prosecute money laundering criminals.

This again could lead to a place where nations have great national legislation but no international applicability, resulting in a utopia where a mixture of laws could result in a state of lawlessness.

The United Nations (hereinafter UN) has put together a manual (Basic Manual on the Detection and Investigation of the Laundering of Crime Proceeds Using Virtual Currencies), that analyses how online virtual currencies are used to launder money.

This manual analysis includes cryptocurrencies as well as online multiplayer in-game assets. The idea of this manual is to provide practical information for investigators and prosecutors on the detection, investigation, prosecution, and seizure of crime proceeds laundered through the use of virtual currencies. At the same time, this manual would be a suitable framework for drafting a UN-wide legislation.

This method would eliminate the possibility of national laws interfering with each other and would set standard rules for every nation in the UN. A universal manual would include the definitions, obligations to marketplace owners and game developers alike. With this in mind, the prosecution and law enforcement would have a more effective investigation and it would improve the co-operation between nations.

As online multiplayer games are becoming more popular each year, it is necessary to draw attention to the darker side of multiplayer games. Criminals can use these multiplayer games and their in-game assets to launder illegal money while staying anonymous and difficult to investigate by law enforcement.

One of the universal solutions would be to draft legislation that would affect almost all the nations in the world. Therefore, in this article, it is suggested to look at the United Nations and their manual as a basis of international legislation that would tackle the problem of money laundering in the light of online multiplayer in-game assets.

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