Recently a news story came out about "Manfred", a hacker who makes a living exploiting bugs in online video games to make in-game currency (or items) which he then sells to other gamers. Here is a description:
A hacker says he turned finding and exploiting flaws in popular MMO video games into a lucrative, full-time job. Manfred's character is standing still in the virtual world of the 2014 sci-fi online multiplayer game WildStar Online. Manfred, the real life person behind the character, is typing commands into a debugger. In a few seconds of what seems to be an extremely easy hack, Manfred's virtual currency skyrockets up to more than 18,000,000,000,000,000,000, or 18 quintillion. I'm watching this hack in a demo video recorded by Manfred as I stand next to him in a Las Vegas bar on Thursday. Manfred, who asked me not to reveal his real name, says he has been hacking several video games for 20 years, making a real-life living by using hacks like the one I just witnessed. His modus operandi has changed slightly from game to game, but, in essence, it consisted of tricking games into giving him items or currency he doesn't have a right to have. He would then sell those items and currency to other players (for real money) or wholesales them to online gray markets, such as the Internet Game Exchange, that then would sell those goods to individual players. At the current exchange rate, Manfred estimates he has $397 trillion worth of WildStar gold. This is obviously an outlandish number, but, essentially, his income was only limited by the real-life market for the in-game currency. When I spoke to Manfred ahead of his talk at the Def Con hacking conference, he said he wanted to go in, give his demo, and go out "as a ghost," never to be seen or heard from again. He said he wanted to be "invisible," just like he's been for the past two decades. He said he's found more than 100 publicly unknown vulnerabilities in more than 20 online video games, making hacking and trading virtual goods into his full time job.
Note that the article describes him as a "hacker", but this is not really accurate terminology because he is not writing code. He is finding what security specialists call "exploits" in other people's code.
What is the legal status of doing this? Is it tort or is it criminal?
I know that people who have exploited, for example, slot machines have been found innocent or had charges dropped. For example, in the notorious case of John Kane, who exploited a buggy video poker system, he was punitively arrested, perp walked, and then indicted by the FBI on Computer Fraud charges. Eventually he refused to plea bargain with them, and they dropped their bogus case, allowing him to finally walk free after a couple of years of persecution by the full force of the US government. Nobody ever apologized for destroying his house with their "search warrant".
Is the situation of Manfred more or less the same legally, or is there a difference?