Hack-a-mole: Disgruntled Programmer Accused of Sabotaging Arcade Game Classic

Marvin Walter Wimberly, Jr., a sixty one year-old programmer and game board designer has been charged by authorities in Florida with committing computer crimes with the intent to defraud after his employer, game maker Bob’s Space Racers (BSR) uncovered an elaborate scheme in which popular arcade games were programmed to self destruct.

Whac a MoleMarvin Walter Wimberly, Jr., a sixty one year-old programmer and game board designer has been charged by authorities in Florida with committing computer crimes with the intent to defraud after his employer, game maker Bob’s Space Racers (BSR) uncovered an elaborate scheme in which popular arcade games were programmed to self destruct.

The company alleges the sabotage was designed with the intent of guaranteeing Wimberly steady employment, according to an affidavit from Holly Hill, Florida Police Department obtained by Threatpost.

Whac-A-Mole, which was invented by Bob’s Space Racers (BSR) in the 1970s, is an arcade classic that pits players, armed with a giant mallet, against a  a small colony of plastic moles that emerge from their holes only to “whacked” back into their hole by the player. The goal is to whack the moles back into their holes as quickly as possible without missing any moles before they duck below ground again. (I assure you, it’s great fun.

So popular and ubiquitous is the game that the term “Whack-a-Mole” is used, colloquially, to describe any repetitious and futile task. In the world of IT Security, Whack a Mole has been used to describe the (never ending and mostly futile) fight against spammers, bot herders and other online criminals. 

According to the affidavit, Wimberly had worked for Bob’s Space Racers, which owns the Whac-A-Mole trademark, as a contractor since the 1980s. Wimberly wrote and maintained the computer programs that controlled a variety of BSR games. In 2008, after changes to his consulting arrangement with the company, BSR offered Wimberly a job as a full time employee, hoping to replace his consulting fees with a salary. Wimberly rejected that offer and, instead, increased his fee for maintaining the games by 250%. At the time, he also pushed out a code update to a number of BSR’s machines, claiming the games needed more diagnostic capabilities. It is alleged that the updates included instructions that would eventually shut-down games running the updated code. 

BSR began to receive reports of games failing unexpectedly and found itself relying on Wimberly to try to recover the failed devices. The programmer responded with software updates – 448 in all – that merely reset the counter on the games that caused them to fail. From 2008 through 2010, he collected approximately %50,000 in fees for this work. BSR claims its total losses were more than $100,000 due to returned inventory and lost clients. 

The company began to suspect Wimberly after the programmer – worried about an overdue payment from BSR – made last minute modifications to a game named “Bongo” shortly before it was shipped to a trade show. After he was paid Wimberly admitted to a BSR technician that the game would fail after being turned off and on 48 or 49 times. The machine was later tested and found to contain a virus believed to have been created by Wimberly. Other games returned to BSR were found to contain similar malicious code. 

In 2010, Wimberly supplied BSR with replacements which were tested and found to be virus free. Michael Lane, CFO of Bob’s Space Racers, believes Wimberly sought to profit from increased maintenance on the machines, according to the affidavit.  BSR did not respond requests for comment. Reached by phone, Wimberly said that the information contained in the affadavit was inaccurate, but declined to comment further, citing the wishes of his attorneys. 

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Discussion

  • Anonymous on

    you think your tv or any lightbulb in your house is not designed to fail in a similar way?

  • Rookie on

    @Anonymous - Do you really think lightbulbs, TVs, and game consoles where designed to fail?  You might as well throw cars, computers, and your bicycle in there too.  I'm sure there's many conspiracy theorists that will agree with you, but none that passed high-school physics class. 

    That's where you would learn that ALL mechanical devices eventually fail.  If you can make a light bulb that lasts even 5 times longer than the average one, and can make a profit selling it for the same price as a regular one, you'll be a billionaire in 10 years.

     

     

  • Anonymous on

    ... it's just one more example of SCADA insecurity...   First it was centrifuges in Iran's nuclear weapons factories, now the Whac-A-Moles at your neighborhood pizza joint,... soon it'll be the XBox360 in your living room Entertainment Center!  (Oh jeeeze, my XBox is dead!  It's already happened!)

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