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Online gamers have become a soft target for cybercrime, with three in 10 users reporting the loss of items of virtual property through fraud.

ENISA, the European Network and Information Security Agency, launched a campaign to clamp down on scams in virtual worlds, which it warns are having a measurable effect on the real economy. Over the last 12 months or so more than 30,000 malicious programs targeting accounts and property in online games and virtual worlds have been detected, a jump of 14 per cent year-on-year, according to net security firm Kaspersky Labs.

Such strains of malware are particularly prevalent in the far east and typically aim at allowing hackers to take over compromised accounts. Access to subscription-only gaming or virtual property deposited in these accounts is then sold through the digital underground.

"While annual real-money sales of virtual goods is estimated at nearly €2bn ($2.51bn) worldwide, users can do very little if their virtual property is stolen. They are a very soft target for cybercriminals," said Giles Hogben, editor of the report, which was put together by a group of academics and industry experts. "There are one billion registered players of online games worldwide and the malware targeting them affects everyone with a computer connected to the internet."

ENISA is also concerned that the avatars they use in virtual world's, much like their social networking profile, could give away personal data. It suggests people are giving away personal data such as location and names via IRC chat channels built into games. But what the use of a furry as an avatar says about someone is probably more of a concern to psychologists than those, like ENISA, concerned about data security and fraud.

The European security agency also has concerns about the use of bots in virtual worlds to spread spam or to mount denial of service attacks. "Multiplayer online games are especially vulnerable to denial of service attacks because of their centralized architecture and poorly authenticated clients," ENISA's report warns.

The agency has drawn up a 12-point action list designed to combat the scourge of gaming Trojans and other security threats in virtual worlds. Key recommendations include:

  • An industry-wide forum for service providers to share best-practice on security vulnerabilities
  • Clarification of virtual property rights for more adequate theft protection
  • An education campaign aimed at users (eg on child safety and privacy risks)

ENISA's full report, Virtual Worlds, Real Money: Security and Privacy in Massively-Multiplayer Online Games and Social and Corporate Virtual Worlds, can be found here (pdf). ®

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