When a group of friends realised 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 huge amounts of in-game currency from EA Sports’ FIFA game.
Anthony, described as the ‘mastermind’ of the operation, had devised a hack which tricked EA Sports’ servers into thinking a game had been completed. They would then automatically award a coin – for games that had never been played.
Once this process was scaled up, the group were able to create vast amounts of the coins, which they then sold on to gamers around the world to the incredible tune of sixteen million dollars.
Anthony and his friends were suddenly rich beyond their wildest dreams, making dizzying 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 purchased a Mercedes AMG CLA 45. I paid in cash.”
As for Anthony, he reportedly showered his family with gifts, not least a house for his mother. For him, as a school friend said, this was “the accomplishment of all accomplishments.”
But the group’s soaring earnings had not gone unnoticed by the FBI. Unbeknown 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 the amount of money that these kids were able to make – there’s $16 million. There’s Lamborghinis and Mercedes.”
“On September the 17th of 2015, we executed search warrants simultaneously. They had no idea that the federal agents were going to show up at their home.” he continued.
To their shock, the FBI raided the friends’ homes early that morning, armed and ready to seize assets.
According to Anthony’s aunt, Shawn Burgess, “At six in the morning they basically just pounded at the doors and then [the boys] were greeted with shotguns in their faces.”
Brian said: “We found a treasure trove of information, especially Eaton Zvare’s computer, because he had every one of the chats that these guys had had. I didn’t have this goal of sending them to prison. 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 collaborators, including Eaton Zveare, pleaded guilty and forfeited all the money they’d made, in order to avoid jail time. But Anthony and his lawyers were convinced that he had done nothing wrong, and decided to fight the case – a move that Anthony understood was extremely high-risk. If he was convicted, he was looking at several years of jail time.
Scott Gilbert, one of Anthony’s lawyers said: “For the government to bring a wire mail fraud prosecution, they had to prove that Anthony obtained money or property. In the terms of service, it literally says FIFA Coins are neither money or property and that was a really big thing to us because we didn’t believe they were going to be able to meet their burden of proof and so we just began to prepare for a trial.”
Anthony’s team took the position that the coins were not valuable as EA Sports could create infinite amounts of them, while EA Sports and the government maintained that the coins did have worth, as evidenced by their resale online.
As Brian put it: “If this was not money or property that they were obtaining then what were they getting 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 wire fraud.
According to Anthony’s friends and family, he wasn’t shocked by the outcome, remaining positive about the possibility of an appeal. He told friends that if he did have to serve time, he would do it and then return to normal life and a career in software creation.
A devastating end
Tragically, that wasn’t to be. That February, as he awaited sentencing, Anthony went out partying with his friends to celebrate his birthday. According to his aunt, he was drinking heavily, knowing it was likely to be his last birthday as a free man for a long time. He had also been taking 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’s dead.”
Anthony passed away in his sleep a few days after his birthday, from what was officially ruled an accidental drug overdose.
He died maintaining that he had not committed a crime and would never plead guilty to something he believed that he had not done. Years later, his lawyers still support his views.
Reflecting on the case and the FIFA coins’ worth, Scott said: “At the end of the day, it’s a numerical value in a computer. It’s no different than the jersey colour on one of the soccer players. It doesn’t really exist.”