December 3, 2018: Updated with Tencent's response. 

Mobile games are littered with items. Some seem trivial, like hats or pets; others are weapons that give players an edge on their opponents. These items aren’t real. But they cost real money. And they can be stolen.

One day in 2008, a man named Zuo signed up for the online multiplayer game QQ Huaxia. For the next 10 years, he roamed through ancient ruins and abandoned villages, battling monsters and demons while collecting prized armor and precious stones.

Last Saturday night, he logged into the game... and was stunned by what he saw. According to the Southern Metropolis Daily, he found his character -- a seasoned warrior -- stripped naked down to a pair of boxers, his backpack completely empty. A tiger he used to ride on was gone, a loss that stung because it’s a rare animal that only appears once every two years.

It was like he never played a game he’d been playing for a decade.

Zuo's character after the apparent burglary. (Picture: Southern Metropolis Daily)

After checking his sign-in history, Zuo pinpointed an unfamiliar login from Liaocheng in the coastal province of Shandong -- a city over 730 miles north of his home in Taizhou, Zhejiang province. He and his friends even saw someone in the game selling what he believed was his belongings, at a discounted price. “I saw even more unsold items in his warehouse,” he said. (The warehouse is, of course, virtual.)

Zuo reached out to customer services about the apparent theft. Tencent told media that some of the stolen items have been recovered. But others, like gold and spells, were already consumed and therefore can’t be returned. Zuo has reported the case to the police and Tencent said it’ll cooperate with the investigation. We reached out to Tencent, who confirmed the case.

Even though you might have strong attachment to the skins and weapons you earned or purchased in a game, in many cases you don’t actually own these virtual items. Instead, game publishers hold the right to take away any items without explanation (although they rarely exercise that right for obvious reasons).

But that doesn’t mean that virtual thievery doesn’t have real-world consequences.

In 2014, two men in China were sentenced to two years in prison for looting the account of a Dungeon Fighter Online player, making around US$6,400 in illegal sales. They were asked to return the profit to the victim. The next year, two men in the US pled guilty to charges related to robbing gold and weapons from other Diablo III players. They were handed probation and asked to repay around US$5,600 -- the cost of the investigation -- to Blizzard.