Digital display of currency symbols

Virtual money laundering – real crime

Do criminals use the virtual world of Second Life to launder money? Although it sounds like the basis for a science fiction novel, this was the scenario investigated by a researcher at the University of the West of England Bristol (UWE Bristol) – whose findings were taken seriously by real-world crime fighters.

Second Life of crime

Second Life is an internet-based experience in which users can create fictional versions of themselves ("avatars") and interact with each other in imaginary places. Importantly, for Dr Clare Chambers-Jones of the Faculty of Business and Law at UWE Bristol, they can also trade using the game’s own internal currency, Linden dollars. These can be exchanged for real-world currencies.

It became clear to Dr Chambers-Jones that Second Life was indeed a potential channel for money laundering. Her investigations were inspired by a report that its creators, Linden Labs, had prohibited any banking activity within their virtual world because of the lack of regulation: there had been financial scandals there, including a run on a virtual bank. How were laws from around the real world being transposed into the virtual world?

She discovered that, although virtual worlds are not beyond the reach of the law, existing laws were not well suited to resolving problems within them. She concluded that crimes committed within virtual worlds could have significant repercussions in the real world – so virtual worlds need to be regulated by some means to protect the safety and security of people in a very real way.

International attention

Her investigations, supported by an Early Career Researcher Award from UWE Bristol, have led her into collaborations with Interpol and police forces in various US states. She also joined a working group set up by the Commonwealth of Nations to help member nations harmonise their laws governing cybercrime. Commonwealth law ministers will meet in 2014 to consider the resulting report.

"The opportunity to spend a year researching virtual worlds and financial crime has enabled me to develop a body of research which is making a difference," says Dr Chambers-Jones. Her work has attracted the attention of national and international government and law enforcement agencies, as well as overseas universities.

She is in discussion with Potsdam University in Germany and the Dutch Police Force about a possible new collaboration, and is already working with the University of Lucerne, Switzerland to develop a virtual international conference led by UWE Bristol to push forward wider investigation into this emerging and important issue.

A second research monograph is in progress following up on the work supported by the UWE Bristol award. Although the topic might appear somewhat unorthodox, "the University was not worried," she says, "in fact it encouraged it.

The early career grant afforded me this opportunity to kick-start an exciting new line of research of international significance."

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