Can you go to jail for cheating in a video game?
When a group of friends realized they could hack one of the most popular video games ever invented, it wasn’t long before serious money started rolling in.
In 2013, 23-year-old programmer Anthony Clark and three of his friends found a way to generate massive amounts of in-game currency from EA Sports’ FIFA game.
Anthony, described as the ‘mastermind’ of the operation, had developed a hack that tricked EA Sports’ servers into thinking a game had been completed. They will then automatically give a coin – for games that have never been played.
Once this process was scaled up, the group was able to create huge quantities of the coins, which they then resold to players around the world to the incredible value of sixteen million dollars.
Anthony and his friends suddenly became rich beyond their wildest dreams, earning staggering amounts of money on a daily basis.
Rich beyond their wildest dreams
Eaton Zveare, one of the group of programmers, said: “At its peak it could have been like $500,000 a day. One of the first things I bought was a car. I bought a Mercedes AMG CLA 45. I paid cash.”
As for Anthony, he is said to have showered his family with gifts, not least a house for his mother. For him, as a schoolmate said, this was “the achievement of all achievements”.
But the group’s soaring income had not gone unnoticed by the FBI. Unbeknownst to Anthony and his friends, the agency had approached Electronic Arts, the company behind the game.
Federal prosecutor Brian Poe said: “What drew us to this case was how much money these kids were able to make – it’s $16 million. There are Lamborghinis and Mercedes.”
“On September 17, 2015, we executed search warrants at the same time. They had no idea that the federal agents were going to show up at their house.” he continued.
To their shock, the FBI raided the friends’ home early that morning, armed and ready to seize assets.
According to Anthony’s aunt, Shawn Burgess, “At six in the morning they were basically just knocking on doors and then [the boys] was met with shotguns in the face.”
Brian said: “We found a treasure trove of information, especially Eaton Zvare’s computer, because he had all the chats that these guys had had. I didn’t have this goal of sending them to jail. What I wanted was to send a message out there, “Hey, guys, this is illegal.”
The case for wire fraud
But was it? Anthony’s three associates, including Eaton Zveare, pleaded guilty and forfeited all the money they had earned to avoid prison. But Anthony and his lawyers were convinced he had done nothing wrong and decided to fight the case—a move Anthony understood was extremely high-risk. If convicted, he was looking at several years in prison.
Scott Gilbert, one of Anthony’s attorneys, said: “In order for the authorities to prosecute mail fraud, they would have to prove that Anthony obtained money or property. The terms of service literally says that FIFA Coins are neither money nor property, and that was a very big deal for us because we didn’t think they would be able to meet their burden of proof, and so we started preparing for a lawsuit .”
Anthony’s team took the position that the coins were not valuable as EA Sports could make infinite amounts of them, while EA Sports and the government argued that the coins had value as evidenced by their online resale.
As Brian put it, “If this wasn’t money or property they acquired, what did they get paid $16 million for?”
In the end, the trial did not go as Anthony’s team had hoped, and a jury found him guilty of conspiracy to commit fraud.
According to Anthony’s friends and family, he was not shocked by the outcome, he was still positive about the possibility of an appeal. He told friends that if he had to serve time, he would do it and then return to normal life and a career in software creation.
A devastating ending
Tragically, it was not to be. That February, while awaiting sentencing, Anthony went out partying with his friends to celebrate his birthday. According to his aunt, he drank heavily, knowing that it would likely be his last birthday as a free man for a long time. He had also taken medication.
Shawn said: “My sister called me that morning and said, ‘Shawn, something’s wrong with Anthony, he’s not breathing’ and I got there and she said, ‘oh Shawn, he’s gone. He is dead.”
Anthony died in his sleep a few days after his birthday, from what was officially ruled an accidental drug overdose.
He died claiming that he had not committed a crime and would never plead guilty to something he believed he had not done. Years later, his lawyers still support his views.
Reflecting on the matter and the value of FIFA coins, Scott said: “At the end of the day it’s a numerical value in a computer. It is no different than the shirt color of one of the football players. It doesn’t really exist.”