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Teen online scamming a risk, say academics

Teenagers are using websites to scam in online communities, say two Salford academics whose new study highlights instances of so called “anti-social networking” amongst young people.

Professor Ben Light and Dr Marie Griffiths discovered various scams in ‘Habbo Hotel’ an online space marketed to teenagers as ‘the gameless game’.

They found that some young internet users are unable to differentiate between online and offline activities as they see Habbo as ‘just a game’ – despite the fact that real money is at stake.

Within Habbo it is possible to buy credits that are used to purchase virtual furniture known as ‘Furni’. It has been estimated that Habbo Hotel contains around $550m worth of Furni, accounting for 50% of the company’s income.

Scamming practices include users presenting themselves as home renovators, with some even getting ‘virtually’ married to gain access to Furni (these are known as ‘gold diggers’).

Their study coincides with the recent case of a Dutch teenager being arrested for allegedly stealing 4,000 euros worth of Furni from user’s rooms in Habbo.

Ben said: “This is an extension of trickery and secondary markets for Pokemon trading cards and Beanie Babies witnessed in the late 1990s. With these toys, real money was involved too. However now, the financial incentives can be much greater. Yet, it also seems that some of the scammers just scam for fun and don’t actually trade or sell stolen Furni – they hoard it in rooms to show off what they have to other users.”

Ben and Marie feel that dealing with such scamming is difficult given the problems of determining what is harmless play, a lesson in life, or serious crime.

They believe that users and their guardians need educating about the realities of such online communities.

Ben said: “Playing in cyberspace can have offline consequences - just like trading, or being cheated out of Pokemon cards and the like.

“The makers of Habbo Hotel are extremely conscientious in dealing with and educating users about scams, and the space offers opportunities for players to learn various important lessons in life. Marie and I would like to see more ‘serious games’ that offer such opportunities for responsible play.”

Désiré Athow

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website building and web hosting when DHTML and frames were en vogue and started writing about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium. Following an eight-year stint at where he discovered the joys of global tech-fests, Désiré now heads up TechRadar Pro. Previously he was a freelance technology journalist at Incisive Media, Breakthrough Publishing and Vnunet, and Business Magazine. He also launched and hosted the first Tech Radio Show on Radio Plus.