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Virtual theft results in real-life arrest

A Dutch teenager has been arrested and five others have been questioned for allegedly stealing $5800 worth of virtual furniture from virtual rooms in the Habbo Hotel.

Heartbreak Hotel for theft victims?

The BBC reports that a Dutch teenager has been arrested for allegedly stealing 4,000 euros' (about $5,800) worth of virtual furniture from "rooms" in the social-networking site Habbo Hotel.

Five 15-year-olds have also been questioned by the police in connection to this incident. The six teens are suspected of moving the stolen furniture into their own Habbo rooms.

The lines between "virtual" and "reality" continue to blur. At first glance, the idea of stealing virtual furniture seems ludicrous. But, the furniture was paid for with real money. A Habbo Hotel spokesman told the BBC that "the accused lured victims into handing over their Habbo passwords by creating fake Habbo Web sites." So there is also a phishing fraud involved.

Habbo Hotel's owners could theoretically replace the victims' lost goods, but doing so would devalue the worth of the virtual product they are selling. If someone walked into a dorm room and stole $5,800 worth of video game media, that would be a real theft, even though the value of the games is really in the code, not the physical media that carries it. In that case the video game company would be under no obligation to replace the lost games.

As entrepreneurs open virtual businesses in online worlds like Second Life, we are going to have to develop new ideas about the worth of virtual property, how we look at the harm done by virtual theft versus real-world theft, and who has the jurisdiction and responsibility to pursue these cases. It's a strange new issue. I certainly don't want to see law enforcement tied up pursuing the theft of virtual objects. However, if the legal system decides it is a real crime, someone will need to enforce the law.