A hacker, who sold usernames stolen from China's most popular online messaging service has been detained in Shenzhen, South China's Guangdong Province.
According to police, the hacker, from Guangxi, has admitted stealing and selling usernames for years.
The messaging system, QQ, is so popular that usernames now have to be at least nine characters long.
The hacker stole prestige usernames, usually of five or six characters, and then sold them on the web. A normal QQ username of six characters could fetch more than 1,000 yuan (US$123), he said.
One victim surnamed Zhang in Chongqing had his username stolen several times.
Zhang told police that after his QQ username of five digits was stolen in May, he got it back from the Tencent company which runs the system.
Several days later it was stolen again. After Zhang recovered his name for the second time, the hacker appeared online to tell Zhang to give up the name because he could easily decode the password and steal it again whenever he wanted.
Zhang begged the hacker to leave his username alone by claiming it was for a public welfare undertaking.
"The theft of virtual property is becoming more common," said Jiang Xihui, a law professor from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Zhang said the stealing of virtual property, such as QQ usernames, cyber games' "equipment" or email addresses, should not be considered as less serious than the stealing of physical property.
"Virtual property should be regarded as property because its owners spend time, labour and money on it," Zhang said.
"A real cash value can be placed on virtual property by working out how much it would fetch if it was sold or auctioned in real life."
Yu Zhigang, a law professor from the China University of Political Science and Law, agreed that virtual property should be protected.
According to Yu, at the moment there are no specific laws dealing with virtual property rights.
However, he said, current laws are adequate to deal with the theft of virtual property.
Yu, who has been engaged in virtual property research for years, said the Supreme Court should issue a judicial explanation addressing the issue of virtual property theft.
Earlier this year, three cyber thieves were sentenced to one-and-a-half year's imprisonment each by a local court in Jinhua, a city in Zhejiang Province.
The three men looted accounts of cyber game players and then sold their virtual "weapons" to other players. The total value placed on the property they stole and traded was put at 1 million yuan (US$123,000).
In court, the three were found guilty of damaging computer systems. Yu believes they should have been convicted of theft.
(China Daily November 15, 2005)