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Virtual Facebook thief jailed for two years

British hacker gets very real sentence

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A British hacker who funded his gambling addiction by stealing and reselling online gaming chips from Zynga has been jailed for two years.

Ashley Mitchell, 29, from Paignton, Devon, was sent down last week after earlier pleading guilty to five charges of hacking and theft at Exeter Crown Court. Mitchell exploited shortcomings in the security of Zynga's website to steal virtual gaming chips with a face value of $400bn and transferring them into fake Facebook profiles under his control.

Zynga, publisher of popular social networking games including FarmVille and Texas HoldEm Poker on Facebook, would have charged £7.4m in real cash for the sale of the stolen 400 billion gaming credits.

Mitchell resold around a third of these stolen chips, netting £53,000 in the process, largely in order to fund his £1,000-a-day gambling habit, the BBC reports. In sentencing, Judge Philip Wassall said the attack had relied on "considerable expertise".

Zynga initially suspected an inside job when it first detected the fraud in August 2009. However an investigation revealed that an external hacker had infiltrated its systems and posed as two employees in order to pull off this heist.

Mitchell had attempted to cover his tracks by piggy-backing onto the unsecured internet connections of his neighbours, who initially became suspects in the case. However on one occasion he used his own Facebook profile during an attack into Zynga systems, leaving a trail of digital breadcrumbs that eventually led police to identify him as a suspect, The Guardian reports.

Mitchell had previously received a 40-week suspended prison sentence for hacking into computers at Torbay Council, an aggravating factor that partially accounts for a seemingly severe sentence for the theft of virtual property. The hacker received 30 weeks imprisonment for breaching a 40-week suspended sentence along with his main sentence, punishment for compromising the integrity of an e-commerce system.

"People rely on the security of systems and anyone who comes before the courts who has gone through these security systems from their own ends can expect custody," Judge Philip Wassall told Mitchell.

"The sentence has to reflect the impact on public confidence in security systems and online business when someone breaches security in this way." ®

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