A senior Microsoft engineer believes criminals are targeting online games. Dave Weinstein thinks MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) such as Guild Wars Factions and World of Warcraft are vulnerable.

Nefarious hackers are using malware to steal account information and sell virtual items, such as 'gold' or 'weapons', for real-life cash. And gaming nuts are prepared to buy them. Which may be the most criminal aspect of all.

Apparently, there is a lucrative market in such items. Players who have the funds – and wish to take shortcuts to gaming success – will pay cold hard cash for virtual objects, including potions and weapons. Some players' accounts can worth up to £5,000 to Jack-and-the-beanstalk-type consumers.

That is, they're worth five grand to the sort of person who has thousands of nicker to waste on items that don't really exist. What this says about the state of the world is harder to fathom.

"The police are really good at understanding 'someone stole my credit card and ran up a lot of money'. It's a lot harder to get them to buy into 'someone stole my magic sword'," Weinstein told Reuters. And perhaps this is an occasion where the police deserve our understanding.

In MMORPGs, players take on the role of a character in an entire virtual world. Players shell out for the game and then have to pay a monthly subscription. They spend hours and even days developing the skills of their characters and winning 'objects'. A character's success tends to be linked to the amount of time a player spends on the game.

Sales are often transacted through auction sites such as eBay. Clearly such deals are against the terms and conditions – and, indeed, the spirit and point – of the games.

Last year, in response to such activity, Sony launched the Sony Station Exchange for players of EverQuest to legally buy and sell in-game money, magical items and characters.

"Those of you who are working on massively multiplayer online games, organised crime is already looking at you," Weinstein told developers at the conference. He urged them to be aware of the risk. We would urge gamers to play the game, and not try to buy success. Oh, and to get out more.

Apparently, thieves often use Trojans. They are disguised as programs that will give a character special powers. Such malware may be distributed through chatrooms. When a hacker has the password details of a character they can log in to the account and sell any weapons, potions and spells.

Weinstein's warning was made at the Gamesfest, in Seattle.

[Via BBC.]