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Scam Key Requests on Steam: Who Hides Behind Fake Emails

by Vladimirs Slavs on 08/31/18 11:11:00 am

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

You know, I have plenty of reasons to enjoy releasing new games. I am sure you can relate to most of them: anticipation of warm reception, fan excitement, monetary gain. But one rather unconventional thing is my anticipation of scam emails. When I’ve started publishing games two years ago, I quickly figured out that people will try to scam you out of the keys. I simply ignored them or asked for verification and they never replied. But since about a year ago, I’ve actually started asking them to share their reasons and insights. I’ve learned a few things that I think could benefit you too if you are publishing games on Steam.

Lazy Galaxy: Rebel Story, our latest game that received lots of scam requests and helped me complete this article.

Background

The usual conversation starts like this:

Scammer:Hi [studio name in best case, generic greeting at worst], I’m a huge youtuber and I need a few keys [first red flag] to review the game.
Me[after doing checks and figuring out it’s a scam]: Oh sure, can I ask a few questions then?
Scammer[best case]:Sure
Me:

Great!
Since original [youtuber] email is different, I know that you are pretending to be someone you are not.

That's fine, I'm not judging you for that. I always wanted to ask some things (in non-agressive way) to people who try to get keys this way. If you have some time, do you mind answering a few questions for the interviewing purposes (anonymity guaranteed of course)?

1) Is this more of a hobby or does it actually sustains your living?
2) If you sell those on platforms like g2a/kinguin/etc - are they trying to identify you in any way? Have you ever faced repercussions for their side (i.e. if dev sent you a bad key)?

Thanks for your time,
Vladimir

___

After that, if they reply, the conversation starts. I’ve spent about a year gathering these replies, trying to persistently follow-up some people for 10+ times. My small research outlines the reasons why people do it. Since my native language is Russian (and a lot of these people come from from Russia), it helped when I addressed them in native language too. The replies are translated. The research group is small: out of 20 emails I’ve responded, 6 answered and only 4 of them gave interesting answers. Three out of four replies were in Russian, I’ve translated them. Here are the cases and reasons below:

Case 1: codename “anonymous

Letter not quoted directly by request [translated from Russian + word order changed in some places].

Hi Vladimir.

For most people, me included, these shenanigans is, of course, a hobby. We just want to fill our libraries and exchange keys to get other games. For this to be profitable – you’ll have to make it a full-time job.

That means spending 10+ hours a day spending on boring routine: finding emails, names, registering fake mail accounts, working with key markets. This could bring significant income earlier, but now there are so many of us and markets are charging ridiculous percentages. To earn around $1000 a month now, you’d have to spend tons of time on routine. Most of the keys are getting exchanged by collectors. I feel like the used key markets only get a small amount of scammed keys (that were sent to fake press).

Speaking about key markets like g2a or kinguing: their owners are on a sketchy path. On one side, most of their profits are from those “gray” keys and they perfectly understand that: self-respecting publishers and developers don’t want to cooperate, but legal key sellers can’t compete with “gray” keys because they can infinitely underbid them and still turn profit. The platforms have to publicly show their honesty and fight against fake key resellers, but in truth they do these things half-heartedly, since if they move the platforms towards legal key sales – their profits will drop significantly and someone else will take the niche.

Regarding the fines from the gray key markets: it’s against their best interests. If the trader’s every second or third key is fake – he will get banned, but this probably does not happen often. Maybe there are 5% of problematic key sales, so platforms and traders can easily refund the money to the buyer. One interesting thing is that since there is no official check whether the key is legit, some buyers actually purchase the key, activate it on their other accounts and send the support request about receiving a fake key. G2a and Kinguin almost always take the customer’s side, that’s why sellers literally “gift” the keys to the buyers. That’s one more reason why traders are not fined and legal key sellers have no reason to be there.

It’s not surprising that not many people respond to you. Most of them are just kids and not seasoned criminals, who think “it does not cost anything for developers – but we won’t buy the game anyway so it’s not theft and not a loss of profit.” No surprise that these types of talks make people feel guilty.

Case 2, codename “Rome”:


> Ok Vladimir

For me it's a hobby, I collect games. Finance does not allow to buy a

lot of games, My friend advised to do so

Thank you.

>Got it, thanks for your reply! Why not just pirate them from torrents?

>Because I do not play games, I just collect them on Steam account.

It's just a hobby

>If you are just collecting them, why do you need multiple keys?


>For exchanges with other collectors


Not much, but at least the explanations were clear.

Case 3, codename “Trader


> Hey. OK, I’ll answer.
1) 50-50.
It brings me hefty sums of money. It’s not my main source of income, since I still have a youtube channel where I create videos or dubs. I also own a few steam curator groups. It’s just a way for me to get some more money for more serious projects. I have a few original twitch ideas which are in development. In short: I want to stop doing it as soon as possible and move on to my own projects before the end of the year.
2) When you are registering on g2a / kinguin, you always need to show a source where the keys are coming from. The systems are different on both platforms. i.e. G2A sometimes asks for “screens” describing where the key comes from, but this is easily circumvented if you have some experience behind your back. Apart from that, the fake key shops usually don’t have names (that match youtubers name used in introduction) and the emails are different anyway.
2.1)
The fines occasionally happen when developers send bad keys instead of simply ignoring us. Sometimes this can be noticed (developers tend to send their messages this way, I think I don’t need to explain the meaning of those), but often the other keys go straight for sale. The consequences are very different on both platforms: if key has been purchased and it did not work, you just give a chargeback. But if this repeats, say, 5 times a week, you get fined. Also, if we receive many keys in one letter, we check one for verification purposes.
If you have something else to ask – fire away.

Me:

Thank you! Since you’ve offered, here’s a few more:
1) if it’s not too personal: what does a “hefty sum of money” means? Everyone has a different definition: are we talking about thousands / tens of thousands / hundreds of thousands roubles? Not asking for exact sum, more like a range.
2)
Are there any groups of people that do it collectively? Maybe you have some contacts that I can get more interviews? Pretty hard to get answers from other fake emails.

Reply:

> 1) It depends how “boldthe user of this method is. I know a man who could move to other country and comfortably live there thanks to this, having this as mostly his main source of income. If you spam a lot of people from 3-5 different addresses – you can get an idea how many keys you can get. I’ll tell it from my own experience: 400-600 EUR is a pretty average monthly income, especially if you have your own curator groups. If someone has lots of them and works tirelessly – 1000 EUR is definitely reachable.
2) I don’t think you’ll ever find these,
and I don’t think such communities exists. Even if they do – these are going to be closed-type things.

Another thing is that the digital key has no price, since you can generate it for free. That’s why it does not seem like such a horrible thing. You sell the key, the game gets new audience. The only thing is that you, developers, are not going to get a percentage, which makes it mostly your problem.

Case 4, codename “Not Really A Scammer”

this was actually a two very similar curator group requests for keys. I’ve compared them and they had the same owners, hence I sent my “clarification/you are a scam” email. While it’s not technically a scam, I still think it teaches a few things about curation circles.

> Hello, Vladimir. To be honest, you are making your conclusions based on inherently wrong assumptions, because you do not understand who creates curator groups and for what purposes. In truth, Curator Groups are a poor way for key acquisition.

Promoting them takes money and 90% of the games we are getting through curator connect. Those keys can not be given to other people: they can only be accepted by group owner and moderators. That’s why it’s one of the purposes why some of the curation groups have similar owners and moderators. The developers often send multiple keys of the game so owners of the curation groups (and you have to understand that these people often know each other since they are all into game collecting) give each other access to redeem the extra copies between themselves. It does not mean that curators are trying to cheat the developers: developers get honest reviews, but curators get +1 game to their library + some more game copies that can be exchanged with other group owners. Apart from that, there are “hired reviewers” - people that are not owners / moderators of curator groups, but just help to write reviews. They get keys to write content for the curator group, thus reducing our workload.
In conclusion, I think you are mistaken in your guess. Curator groups can’t really make money on game reselling, since most games are given not as keys, but as curator connect copies. The expenses for promoting and maintaining the group are higher than potential income from selling the games. People who sell keys do not create curator groups, but at most can exchange their keys with other curators for less “liquid” game.

I’ll expand my previous explanation so you can get the proportions of this: you think everything is based on profiteering, but it’s a mistake. Everything is based on collecting games. I am number X[calls his position, very close to top, double digit number] of user rank by games owned on steam. I am a moderator in the curator groups of people who rank Y,Z,U,W [anonymized, single and double digit numbers], e.t.c. Realize that there are 100 million user accounts and we are on top of it. People who collect games, people like me, we do not earn money from games, we are the ones who spend it.

Me:

> Hey! Thanks for the detailed answer: that’s why I’m writing these letters :) If you are curious about my position:
1) I have no problem with collecting, but I constantly get offers through paid promotions through curator groups + key requests
for reselling from quasi-legit curators. Due to this my trust in curators has seriously been shattered, especially since multiple group have the same moderators and owners.

2) Another thing that makes me think: most of these groups have only positive reviews. I’m sure that some of the developers would like positive-only feedback for their game, but overall it creates a “fake” impression about the group.
3) Most of journalists introduce themselves. In your case I only get generic letter where the only thing has been replaced is the game name.

Reply:

> Hello Again. You know what, you are partially correct. Advertising through curators won’t give you the same effect as advertising through youtubers or magazines. On the other hand, indie-developers are glad to receive our help too. Firstly because the aforementioned youtubers and magazines are mostly concentrating on AAA games / AA indies and won’t cover it if you simply give them the copy of your $5 / $10 game. So curator advertising is actually free: for a few press copies that can’t be re-sold apart from giving it away to group moderators, you gt some exposure. For us, it’s a hobby and not a job so it’s easy to arrange a positive review.

On the other hand you need to explain what you think by “fake group.” Most of the groups have real, active subscribers. Yes, of course we bring them in through advertised free key giveaways. But nonetheless they are real players and if curator writes a review, the review is going to have some clicks. Roughly speaking, for every 10000 subscribers you’ll be getting 50-200 targeted page visits. It depends on the game: popular ones will get more, asset flips – much less. But those are real visits, which were triggered because player has seen a curator review in their timeline.

So of course don’t consider an advertisement through curators as panacea for successful sales or main marketing direction for your game, but a side thing that brings you conversions and essentially is free, for a meagre price of the game copies that can’t be passed to curator non-admins anyway. That’s why developers should actively use “Curator Connect” system, since it guarantees that no keys will be re-sold and even if curator does not make a review – the developer won’t get any financial losses.

____
Conclusions:

It’s up to you what you want to think about all of this. I suppose I can see it being lucrative side-business in eastern countries, mainly because of our low living expenses, so the keys can make a significant supplementary living income. Even if people ask it for their collecting hobby, they exchange your keys and because of that these keys might end up on key markets.

1) Most people who scam you out of the keys don’t see it as a theft.
2) Keys from curator connect can’t be resold. But think whether you need to send multiple keys to two curators that have essentially the same audience.
3) Scammers often register their own "real news" website domains now. Check the linked website twitter / facebook accounts. If it's a "real" youtuber with 5k subscribers, check out their videos and if they get enough views and comments.

I’ll probably add more answers if I’ll get them, but I won’t stop sending my questions: even behind cold replies I saw the glimpses of personalities.

If you liked the article, you can follow my twitter or check out the latest game game that I've made with my girlfriend, called Lazy Galaxy: Rebel Story (I was able to complete my 'research' partly to its release :)

 


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