Virtual worlds open to malware and identity theft

Research has revealed that virtual world fraud is an increasing threat, with the theft of virtual property as well as the loss of private data.

A new survey and report from European Union agency ENISA said that corporate, social as well as gaming worlds were being increasingly targeted by malware.

YouGov, industry, academic and government experts were also involved in the report, with the survey using data from 1,500 respondents from the UK, Sweden and Germany.

Kaspersky Labs said that in less than a year, malicious programs targeting virtual world accounts had increased by 145 per cent, with more than 30,000 new malicious programs detected.

Malware was increasingly targeting virtual property, which was having an increasing value in the real-world economy.

Although many virtual worlds discouraged out-of-world transactions, some such as Second Life encouraged the cross-over by publishing official exchange rates between real and in-world currencies.

"While annual real-money sales of virtual goods is estimated at nearly 1.5 billion Euros (1.2 billion), users can do very little if their virtual property is stolen. They are a very soft target for cybercriminals," said Giles Hogben, the editor of the report.

"There are one billion registered players of online games worldwide and the malware targeting them affects everyone with a computer connected to the internet."

Users were also risking their private data as they commonly perceived that their online personas were completely separate from their real lives. They tended to give significant data way using channels such as voice or chat.

The report warned that representing yourself as an avatar was no different to from any other online persona which you would use on Facebook or MySpace just a three-dimensional version.

"People should take just as much care of their personal data in these environments as in any other online context," said executive director of ENISA, Andrea Pirotti.

Bots could also be sprinkled within virtual worlds to spread spam or advertise products.

The report is available here.