While I feel sad that many of these 'workers' are either exploited or under-paid, the work they do is still illegal.
By manipulating the property belonging to another legal entity, and reselling it illegally they're violating the copyright laws and Intellectual Property laws in many countries. The only reason many of them aren't prosecuted though is because Internet regulatory structures around the world, and laws between countries over online conduct, as well as online trading aren't covered by a single consistent framework.
This makes protection and prosecution difficult.
With pirated goods it's a lot easier to stop the import since customs in many countries catch and prosecute traders in these goods. With virtual goods the law is still catching up with these effects.
The bigger worry for players of RuneScape and other MMORPGs, apart from the negative effects of having to compete against those who exploit the game illegally for monetary return, is the criminal elements now being found up the chain.
While still true the problem for us as players is that gold farmers make access to extraction spots and any return on many extracted goods devalued to the point it's worthless extract these good for trade, or even to train some skills. That damages the game for players, and in turn hurts the companies since paying members get frustrated and may leave the game.
The criminal elements however post a much greater threat in the long run since these groups, due to the volumes in trade are now becoming according to some reports by law enforcement, viable channels for laundering money. This means real criminal elements may be using the trade in virtual goods as a means to convert large sums of cash into desirable real world currencies in order to avoid detection by taxation and law enforcement agencies.
Governments are concerned enough now to start placing limits, and begin monitoring of trade in any virtual items or currency. What is following now is the legislative frameworks, and the law enforcement muscle to clamp down on this illegal currency trading. RWT in all MMORPGs given the trade now is in the ten millions of real dollars (U.S. Dollars) or more a year (some estimates now place virtual item & currency trading in the 100s of millions) mean these fears are likely real.
To set up shop, these traders may use the labour of the individual 'gold farmer' in many countries where labour is cheap. There is as many players point out no guaranteed wages or conditions, and most of the jobs in these places fall within the definition the International Labour Organisation (I.L.O.) would define as 'sweatshop' conditions.
The collectors at the higher end are effective companies trading without licences or any kind of legal contract in the Intellectual Property of another company. So as they're operating outside of any legal framework they do not give any consumers who purchase these services legal protections, since customers buy at their own risk. They also interact at their own risk with what are for the most part fly-by-night operations that guarantee no legal protection for confidential personal or financial data they may gather from players. This includes all credit card, personal contacts and other information.
Given the lack of any guarantee that can realistically be offered, and that these are all unregulated traders in what is essentially a real-life black market monetary hole in real world economies, this is a very worrying trend.
Players who choose to break the rules and buy from these traders, not only risk losing their account, but they may be trading with persons who may also be connected to real life criminal, or worse, terrorist groups. It's really impossible to tell if their intent is merely to break the game rules, or go further, and on-sell personal credit card, financial and personal information to less scrupulous or even criminal procurers. Any one who doubts the reality of the risk of identity theft, and financial fraud on the Internet is obviously placing themselves and their families as serious risk.
The Internet is no longer a nice, and is certainly not a safe place. Add to that the risk that those procuring data from RWTers may in-fact have more than identity theft and fraud on their minds. The fact is Internet Predators and paedophile rings exist all over the Internet, and many operate from the very countries engaged in gold farming. Would any parent want their child to put themselves at risk by trading with groups that could simply be spruiking for victims. Don't kid yourselves kidnapping by online Predators, who will travel overseas in a flash if they find a vulnerable target.
While those are all frightening scenarios, any experienced player should know that if it's happening illegally, and there's no legal protection being given by these groups, there's also no guarantee these things aren't happening. The worst part is that they are already happening in many places, and online gaming is fraught with risks if you give out personal data? Why add to that risk?
I'm sorry but I can't feel sorry for the poor
gold farmer. It's the responsibility of the governments in these countries to regulate their labour markets and protect the welfare of their workers. Those countries that fail to do so, leave not only the individual worker who steal objects (albeit as individual gold farmers in small amounts of objects from other players) but also leave these workers and those consumers in our countries ultimately at the whim of illegal traders.
I would not trust those who trade in RWT in the same way I would not trust other workaday criminals who thieve in the real world. There's no difference in my opinion.
As as for the slaves/workers at the bottom of this food chain, sadly they're just as vulnerable, and liable to abuse, as the players who sadly will find their accounts banned by trading with them.
There's nothing good that can come from RWT.
Some further not-so-light
reading:Wikipedia - Game SweatshopsUK Law to Condemn Virtual World Transactions?Cops Learning How to Extend Beats Online'Virtual theft' leads to arrestCybercrime More Widespread, Skillful, Dangerous Than EverMMO Mafia - Gold Farming & The Beginning of Virtual Organized CrimeBoring Game? Outsource ItHow a Gold Farm WorksWhy PC Gamer Kicked Out Gold FarmersCrime - Virtual Worlds Target For Money LaunderingSecurity News - Symantec sees [bleep]e in crimeware kits, organized cybercriminalsCybercrime: Will WoW Become A New Stage For Money Laundering?Stealing Imaginary ThingsOnliner gamer stabbed over 'stolen' cyberswordICC Commercial Crime Services - Virtual money laundering threat identifiedtheguardian.co.uk - Screen grabbers - crime hits the digital frontierGrand Jury Busts 17 in Internet Crime Ring
CAUTION: As usual be very careful if you visit sites such as blog and non-mainstream news sites. I always have Anti-Virus and any Anti-Spyware, as well as Firewall protection enabled, and never click on links I do not feel I can trust. I cannot therefore guarantee the safety at all of any subsequent links you may wish to follow.
This last link below is a link I do recommend since it gives a low down from a renown Internet Security Company - Symantec
, and contains a podcast about the scores of threats all users of the virtual worlds face today:Symantec - Internet Security Threat Report, Vol.12: Future Watch - Virtual Worlds